Jewish Journal | #UlyssesBoston

Messages in Bottles

By Larry Constantine | Published April 15, 2015, issue of April 16, 2015.  

BOSTON — As originally written, the title character in Gilad Evron’s innovative one act play, “Ulysses on Bottles,” is an Israeli Jew. When some of the original cast withdrew from the premiere in Israel owing to concerns about the play’s controversial content, an Arab-Israeli actor took over the role and Evron was asked to rewrite the play. At first he protested that it would change the story completely and would require a total rewrite. In the end, though, he found he only needed to change three words.

This vignette, shared during the post-performance Talk Back session after Sunday’s matinee, speaks to the universality of the dilemmas the play explores. Nominally, it is about Israel and Gaza, Jews and Arabs in a contemporary struggle of politics and place. According to playwright Evron, however, it is not about politics but about humanity and our treatment of fellow human beings.

The title character, a former teacher given to philosophical rants and quixotic political gestures, is in prison for having violated the Gaza blockade on a raft made of empty soda bottles. His attempt to deliver books of Russian literature to Gaza is an oddball odyssey that inspires the press to dub him Ulysses, Ulysses on bottles. He is passionate to the point of obsession about bringing books to the citizens of Gaza, and this obsession is at once his source of strength and purpose and his downfall. “Why books?” he is asked. “Because people need books,” he answers.

The play is structured as a series of small-scale encounters. Except for final bows, all five actors are never on stage at the same time. The pivotal role, and most richly articulated character, is actually not Ulysses but his lawyer, Saul Issakoff, played by Jeremiah Kissel. Saul is the foil in four interwoven struggles: with his wife, Eden, played by Karen MacDonald; with the ambitious young lawyer, Horesh, played by Daniel Berger-Jones; with an ambiguous but assertive “gatekeeper” played by Will Lyman; and with Ulysses himself, played by Ken Cheeseman.

Saul’s wife wants him to don a dress and sing at a charity event for children. Saul refuses to perform what to him is a silly and potentially humiliating act that could hurt his career. Horesh, a greasy lawyer who has no qualms about defending guilty gangsters, wants Saul to provide a shortcut to becoming a senior partner at their law firm. The gatekeeper, in running debates over the fate of Ulysses and Gaza, defends the blockade and opposes Ulysses’ attempts to break it. Ultimately, though, he just wants to be done with the whole matter.

Ulysses, at first believing that all he needs to do is convince a judge of his sincerity to be found not guilty, repeatedly rejects all of Saul’s defense strategies. He is not crazy, he argues, and he is not emotionally damaged by the death of his son. He is sane and rational, doing a modest and reasonable thing. Convicted and imprisoned, he suffers at the hands of his unseen jailers. Ultimately, he ends up placed on administrative detention, an indefinite sentence justified as being for his own safety. If he is released he will try again to deliver literature to Gaza; if he tries again, the gatekeeper explains, he will be shot.

The play poses questions without offering answers. Is it wrong to want to bring books to Gaza? Is it wrong to ban the import of books and paper? Why books? Why not? And why, of all genres, Russian literature? Asked this last question after the performance, Evron shrugged and said that he particularly loves Russian literature. He noted that many of the first Jewish émigrés to the area then known as Palestine spoke Russian and brought their literature and culture with them.

“Ulysses on Bottles” is the first fully-staged production by this young Boston company. The play is being presented by ArtsEmerson in the small Liebergott Black Box theater at the Paramount in downtown Boston. The staging is stark, symbolic and evocative, dominated by a plain wooden table and matching straight-back chairs. Scott Pinkney’s lighting design is controlled, creative and perfectly adapted to the theater-in-the-square format, with precisely positioned blinkered spots, dramatic shadows, and empty plastic bottles hanging above each seating section lit by LEDs that change with mood and scene. The sound design by Dave Remedios uses rumbles and clashes to complement the visual experience effectively.

The play is taut, emotionally and intellectually engaging, and performed without intermission. The acting, under the direction of Israeli Stage founder Guy Ben-Aharon, is authentic and modulated, taking advantage of the audience proximity in the intimate setting of the small theater. Cheeseman occasionally goes a bit theatrical in his delivery, but that is in keeping with his part. Evron himself praised the professionalism and artistry of the performance, noting that, in Israel, they had three months of rehearsal while in Boston, it came together in a mere three weeks.

From its official premier in Haifa in 2012, “Ulysses on Bottles” has been controversial. Ultimately, the play does not take positions on the uncomfortable dilemmas it poses, although some in the audience will no doubt leave believing that it has either attacked or affirmed their own politics. At the Sunday matinee, the audience, roughly half of whom were supporters of the New Israel Fund, was attentive and enthusiastic during the Talk Back led by Jonathan Soroff, but Ben-Aharon acknowledged that the discussions after some of the first performances had been quite heated. The group, however, is committed to promoting genuine dialogue and extending it beyond the stage.

Despite its stark setting and relatively simple story arc, the script is richly layered and nuanced, a drama that repays a second or even a third visit with fresh insights. In fact, some members of the audience asked if copies of the script could be made available.

This play is highly recommended, but come prepared to be challenged. At some points you will smile and nod in agreement, at some you will grit your teeth in protest, and at others you will be left acutely uncomfortable. In any case, do stay for the Talk Back that brings the dialogue among the players into contemporary Boston.

“Ulysses on Bottles” is at the Paramount Theater, 559 Washington Street, Boston, through April 25. Visit or call 617-824-8000 for more information.

Category 2014-15 Season, Press, UlyssesBoston

The Boston Globe | #UlyssesBoston sets Sail

THE BOSTON GLOBE | “With ‘Ulysses on Bottles,’ A Big Leap for Israeli Stage” | By Jeremy D. Goodwin | 4/7/2015 

It’s his 25th birthday, and Guy Ben-Aharon is getting a lot of text messages. Mixed in with the birthday greetings, though, is another major theme.

“People are saying, ‘I can’t get a ticket to opening weekend, what’s going on?’” Ben-Aharon says of “Ulysses on Bottles,” the first fully staged production by Israeli Stage, the theater company he founded just a few years ago as an undergraduate at Emerson College.

As he sits in a rehearsal studio in Emerson’s Paramount Center on a recent afternoon, Ben-Aharon, the play’s director, is bubbly and upbeat. “Even if you know me, I can’t do anything” about finding extra tickets, he says, punctuating the humblebrag with a genial laugh. A bit of a showman, Ben-Aharon overstates the ticket shortage; as of press time, some seats were indeed still available.

Over five seasons, Israeli Stage has presented a series of new-play readings, actors with script in hand. “Ulysses on Bottles,” which begins performances on Thursday, is a co-production with ArtsEmerson and will have the benefit of that group’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box theater at the Paramount, in addition to a full design staff. Israeli Stage previously mounted a reading of the play in 2012 with much of the present cast.

The production is the North American premiere of the play. Written by Gilad Evron, it’s a taut drama about an Israeli Arab who has been arrested for trying to sail a raft stocked with Russian literature into Gaza, in violation of the travel and trade restrictions put in place by the Israeli government and enforced by its military. (This version is an English translation penned by Evan Fallenberg.)

Nicknamed “Ulysses” by the press, the man proves an enigmatic voice of conscience and affects the people around him — including his lawyer, played by Jeremiah Kissel, and an Israeli military official portrayed by Will Lyman — in unexpected ways. Ken Cheeseman plays the title character.

Dressed casually in blue jeans and wearing green-and-blue glasses, Ben-Aharon watches intently as Kissel and Lyman work on a scene. The director walks around the playing space and sometimes pauses to stand behind a black music stand, where he rests his yellow notepad when not scribbling something onto it.

A few minutes into rehearsal, playwright Evron slips into the room. During a quick break, Kissel steps over to chat and confirm Evron’s attendance at his Passover Seder a few days hence.

The creative team is deep into “scene work” here, experimenting with alternate line readings and teasing out some of the different shadings of meaning implied by each. In this scene, the lawyer Saul Izakov is hearing some statistics about the dangerously cramped conditions in Gaza; over 1.8 million people are reported to be living in the 139-square-mile territory.

“Nothing said here has troubled you?” Lyman’s military man asks.

“Legally, not unduly,” his lawyer responds tersely, the gravity of his tone and the furrows in his brow offering a fuller answer.

This is a big moment for Israeli Stage. It’s not a new thing for Ben-Aharon to work with some of the finest actors in Boston theater — the cast for “Ulysses,” which also includes Karen MacDonald as Saul’s wife, Eden, and Daniel Berger-Jones as an up-and-coming lawyer with Saul’s firm, collectively have earned enough Elliot Norton and IRNE awards to stock a bookshelf. The growing troupe has even taken the unusual step of touring with a staged reading; “Oh God,” featuring Lyman and Maureen Keiller, has gone on the road twice, most recently last fall.

Since founding Israeli Stage with the intention of offering contemporary Israeli plays in English translation, Ben-Aharon, who was born in Israel and moved to the United States with his family at age 9, has since been tapped locally to create similar platforms for works from Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. The audiences, he says, seem unusually invested in the ideas voiced by the plays.

“I think of them as family members who come from Seder to Seder, from event to event,” he says of his patronage, which he estimates is composed of one-half to two-thirds Jewish theatergoers.

David Dower, ArtsEmerson’s artistic director, says he wanted to partner with Israeli Stage and help it make the jump to a fully produced production, in part, because Ben-Aharon has very quickly “established Israeli Stage as a vibrant contributor to the cultural conversation in our city.” Furthermore, “Ulysses on Bottles” offers the chance, uncommon in America, to “hear theater artists in the Middle East speaking for themselves,” Dower writes in an e-mail.

Given the sincerely held passions held on all sides, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians can be difficult to talk about with dispassionate nuance. This play offers no chest-thumping in any direction. It centers on the quixotic mission of an apparent gadfly who is committed to the idea that Gazans should be able to read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but presents all of its characters as flawed and contradictory human beings trying to find the most appropriate responses to troubling situations.

“We’re wondering whether the heavy political questions and debates over Gaza overshadow what we think the value of this play is,” Lyman says, gathered around a table with Kissel, MacDonald, and their director before rehearsal. “We bring the politics of the situation into play because that’s the milieu of the play, that’s where it sits and we have to understand that, but it doesn’t pretend to give any answers to the problem. It really says that we’re all responsible — we’re all right, and we’re all to blame.”

MacDonald calls to mind an injunction from the New Testament.

“Just because you’re in the audience for this play,” she says, “you don’t get to sit in judgment of the people on the stage and their particular story. It’s like, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Beyond the specifics of the socio-political environment depicted here, Kissel says it’s particularly valuable to be exposed to new plays from foreign shores. He notes his appearance in a reading last November directed by Ben-Aharon under the auspices of his group Austrian Stage.

“It enriches your vocabulary,” Kissel says of experiences like these, with the work of non-American playwrights. “It’s almost like taking a vacation. It’s like going to another place and taking that Metro and using that money and trying to think like [someone who lives there], and you come back and you’re refreshed.”

Category 2014-15 Season, Press, UlyssesBoston

Scott Pinkney, Lighting Designer | #UlyssesBoston

Scott Pinkney, Lighting Designer of Ulysses on Bottles, shares his thoughts about Gilad Evron’s play and the importance of doing works that provoke conversation.  

Category 2014-15 Season, UlyssesBoston

First Impressions by Scott Burson | #UlyssesBoston

Advisory Board Member Scott Burson shares his first impressions of Ulysses on Bottles from the First Rehearsal / Meet & Greet. 

Scott F BursonAlthough I go to a lot of theater, I haven’t had many opportunities to see professionals work together to put a work on stage.  It was a great privilege to sit in on the first rehearsal of Ulysses on Bottles. I had been to a previous reading of the play, so I already knew it had “good bones.”  The play is written by an Israeli and probes important questions about the Israel’s “management” of Gaza.  Ulysses wants to bring the grandeur of the human spirit — represented by Russian literature — to Gaza.  The Israeli authorities do not want to allow this. How can anyone deny others access to the greatness of the human spirit represented by literature? On the other hand, does the quest even make sense, or is it suicidal romanticism? The play was written several years before the conflict of the summer of 2014: incredibly, the play has not been overtaken by events: if anything, the questions it raises are even more cogent. I don’t think it is a spoiler to say the play raises questions that continue to evade resolution.

For me, just recognizing the cast was exciting. A number of Boston’s most accomplished actors are in the production, and it was a pleasure to watch them begin to work with this material, molding complex and authentic characters attempting to wrestle with a Gaza that Israel can neither walk away from or resolve. It was also fascinating to hear sketches about the plans for staging, lighting, and sound design. In the finished production, these aspects are often just part of the fabric of the piece: it was great to be reminded that they don’t just happen, that they are carefully conceived and woven into the final product.

I am looking forward to the production. A great cast and a great script, thoughtfully staged: I expect to leave the theater thinking. I don’t think I will be alone.

Category 2014-15 Season, UlyssesBoston

First Impressions by Bruce Lynn | #UlyssesBoston

Founding Board Member Bruce Lynn shares his first impressions of Ulysses on Bottles from the First Rehearsal / Meet & Greet. 

I’ve neverBruce Lynn been to a first rehearsal/read through of a new theater production before. It was easy to find the Emerson Paramount Performance Center at 555 Washington Street by the huge, lighted sign over the theater next door. When I walked into Studio 7, I encountered a room filled with more than 30 people for the first rehearsal of Ulysses on Bottles, an award winning play by Israeli playwright, Gilad Evron. I recognized the actors in the cast sitting at a large square table, a few fellow board and advisory board members, a handful of our wonderful supporters, our terrific presenting partners from ArtsEmerson: The World On Stage, two actors who performed in other Israeli Stage productions (but guests at this event), and some friends of Guy Ben-Aharon, the Found and Producing Artistic Director of Israeli Stage. But who were the other 20+ people sitting at the table and in seats surrounding it, who seemed to know so many people in the room?  

This is what it means to mount a stage production! And what more at Emerson College. A lighting director, assistant lighting director, production manager, assistant director, set designer, sound designer and even a member of the cast were faculty and some were students at Emerson College, all supporting Guy, an Emerson alum, who is directing this production. The set designer gave a presentation showing some examples of where he gained inspiration and how a set can convey a sense of profound aloneness that will reach out and almost literally touch the audience. The sound designer played recordings of experiments he had conducted that would blend with the stage setting to create a new reality that is Ulysses on Bottles. I never imagined how much thought and collaboration goes into lighting. Who knew how Israeli sunlight differs from Egyptian sunlight. He did!

Lastly, I hear the cast do their first reading through of the script. How they were able to bottle (in this case, pun intended) so much emotion, to interrupt each other in heated, back-and-forth arguments, just as I image the Gilad Evron imagined when he wrote the words — on the first read through? I can’t wait to see all of these elements come together in the full production next month! And I know I’ll be spending more time at the theater in the future admiring the set designs, the sound, and the lighting base on this experience on the 4th floor in Studio 7.

Category 2014-15 Season, Our Board Members, UlyssesBoston