‘Theatre should be dangerous, or else it shouldn’t be.’
The Last Act (Israeli Stage, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through June 2. 617-933-8600.)
By Jules Becker
Joshua Sobol is a dangerous playwright. Indeed, free-spirited Israeli actress Gilly could be the renowned Israeli playwright’s spokeswoman as a pivotal character in his provocative new play “The Last Act” when she observes, “Theatre should be dangerous, or else it shouldn’t be.” Boston-based Israeli Stage is embracing that danger in a striking world premiere that invites audience members to call into question their assumptions about not only Israelis and Palestinians but also the possibility of real dialogue.
Israeli Stage artistic director Guy Ben-Aharon clearly has a passion for Sobol’s work. Since 2011 he has been acquainting more and more Hub theatergoers with staged readings of some of the prolific (over 75 plays) writer’s plays — among them “Wanderers” and “Sinners” — and the author himself last year as an Israeli Stage playwright-in-residence. Now Ben-Aharon is taking that acquaintance to a higher plain with a you-are-there full production “The Last Act” that intends to lead the Boston community in all its diversity to a shared dialogue.
Craig Mathers as Ethan, Marianna Bassham as Dana and Annelise Lawson as Gilly in ‘The Last Act.’ (photo courtesy Paul Marotta/Israeli Stage)
Gilly and Palestinian-Israeli citizen Djul, who actually studied together at drama school, seem serious about creating their own shared dialogue as they rehearse Gilly’s adaptation of “Miss Julie.” Complicating the hopeful possibility is the fact that Gilly is married to Mossad agent Ethan, who has set up ongoing surveillance of the pair as they prepare to present the Strindberg classic in Ramallah. When Ethan’s superior Dana (pronounced Dahna) contends, “God sees everything we do (surveillance et al) and keeps silent,” Jean Paul Sartre’s seminal drama “No Exit” comes to mind.
If Hell is other people in Sartre’s existential closed tribunal, its counterpart in Sobol’s play may appear to be intelligence agents who turn the Martin Hall space at the Calderwood Pavilion into a voyeur’s delight as they keep tabs on Gilly and Djul. Are they right to assume that Djul is actually a Hamas agent intending to kidnap Gilly in order to make an exchange for many fellow terrorists? Could Djul actually be a sincere actor who struggles to earn a living? Sobol certainly keeps the line between rehearsal and reality richly ambiguous, a line that challenges alternately jealous and resolutely professional Ethan. Still, there are easy generalities like Gilly’s contention that “Everything’s an adaptation” and moments when the escalation of Ethan’s volatility threatens to become a set-up for her accusation that her husband is “ice cold.” Some theatergoers may also wonder why the play does not make Dana as fully conflicted as Ethan.
“The Last Act” may not be as inspired as “Lysistrata,” but Sobol demonstrates a stage bravery that Aristophanes would admire. Premium actor’s director Ben-Aharon has fired up a strong cast. Annette Lawson has all of Gilli’s flirtatiousness during an opening audition and her evolving relationship with Djul. She delivers Strindberg passages with full authority. Louis Abd El Massih is properly elusive and charming as Djul with Lawson’s Gilly. He also captures Djul’s indignation as he remembers a disturbing childhood experience.
Craig Mathers is rivetingly tough-minded but deeply vulnerable as Ethan. Marianna Bassham does her very good best with the under-written role of Dana. Kudos also go to Cristina Todesco for disarmingly direct grill constructs that complement Sobol’s insights on both invasions of privacy and the difficulty of achieving lasting understanding.
Theatergoers — Jewish or non-Jewish, Israeli or Arab (full disclosure: this critic was born in Herzlia, Israel) – should check out “The Last Act.” To paraphrase from Ben-Aharon’s playbill welcome, this significantly ‘dangerous’ play is not trying to change hearts and minds but rather open them a little. One hopes that Israeli Stage will someday find and stage a Palestinian play that is brave enough to do the same.
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Theater District South — stretching from the Lyric Stage Company of Boston and Club Café to the Boston Center of the Arts — continues to reap a bountiful harvest during the 2018 awards season. As with the recent IRNE Awards, Monday night’s Norton Awards — presented by the Boston Theater Critics Association at the Huntington Theatre — honored fringe, small, midsize and large local efforts as well as visiting productions. In several instances, in fact, Norton choices echoed IRNE ones. You Tube satirist Randy Rainbow, who has performed at Club Café, was the guest of honor.
Big winner Lyric Stage Company took home three awards. Leigh Barrett was cited as best musical actress for her performances as Mama Rose in a revival of the musical “Gypsy” and Florence Foster Jenkins in the company’s reprise production of the play “Souvenir.” Will McGarrahan, who returned with Barrett as piano accompanist Cosme Moon, took musical actor honors. Summer Williams, a familiar guest director at Lyric Stage, won the mid-size production prize for her work on “Barbecue.” Barrett also took home the evening’s biggest honor, the Elliot Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence.
Several companies of varying sizes were honored for efforts on the BCA’s diverse stages. Company One took both new script and small stage production honors for “Hype Man: a break beat play.” Sleeping Weazel’s “3/Fifths’ Trapped in a Traveling Minstrel Show” won the fringe production prize. Alison Olivia Choat was cited for direction — small or fringe — for Moonbox Productions’ edition of “The 39 Steps,” previously an IRNE Award supporting actor and ensemble winner. Malcolm Beecher III, already honored by the IRNE’s for his acting in Huntington Theatre’s world premiere of “A Guide for the Homesick,” was similarly cited by the Nortons.
Lindsay Eagle followed up an IRNE acting prize with a small or fringe actress Norton. David Reiffel took home the midsize production musical direction prize for his work on the New Repertory Theatre revival of the musical “Man of La Mancha” and the SpeakEasy Stage Company Hub premiere of the play with music “Shakespeare in Love.” Wheelock Family Theatre, already an IRNE winner for small stage production, won the ensemble prize. Keith Hamilton Cobb and “American Moor” followed up visiting IRNE small stage solo honors for O.W.I. (Bureau of Theatre) and Phoenix Theatre Ensemble with a Norton solo award.
For a complete list of the winners, go to the Norton Facebook site.