If you’re looking for theater to shake you out of your seat and into a new perspective, THE RETURN, the sleek and stirring swan song presented by Guy Ben-Aharon’s Israeli Stage, takes you there.
On a blank white slice of backdrop, a literal tabula rasa, a man and a woman stand before us as the lights go up: Him and Her. Program notes tell us this is Israel/Palestine; beyond that we know almost nothing about these two and their relationship, but they appear confrontational. We come to learn, in increasingly tense increments, that their encounter hinges on an explosive kernel of a premise, both personal and political, which erupts over the course of 65 minutes into a heated and life-altering exchange– for them and for us.
THE RETURN is the first play produced by Israeli Stage which was penned a Palestinian-Israeli playwright:Hanna Eady and American Edward Mast. The play hangs on the superb work of actors Nael Nacer and Philana Mia. This duo is locked in a tense negotiation of sorts, and they deliver extraordinarily modulated, detailed, emotional performances, by turns volatile, infuriating, and soul-wrenching. Everything between them is unsettled including the very ground on which they stand.
It’s no accident that the play begins in silence, with our first seeing the two as a nameless man and woman against a blank canvas. The play is asking us to see them stripped down to something fundamental. It’s not clear who they are and what they recognize about each other. Gradually, they are layered with context, and we come to see them through the prism of many identities–political, religious, historical, sexual. They struggle beneath that cultural load and the shifting balance of power contingent on those identities. The play leans on the discomfort of old wounds, and their interaction is as unnerving as it is necessary.
So was the 25 minute conversation with the audience that followed this performance and every performance — thank goodness. It would be nigh impossible NOT to talk about what you have just seen, and that dialogue channels the restless energy and potential insight unleashed by the play. The night I saw it, the discussion was helmed by Artistic Director & Founder Guy Ben-Aharon and featured the two playwrights. The conversation was intelligent and charged, veering from tentative observations to defensiveness, anger, and genuine curiosity about the specifics of these characters and the issues raised.
Some argued that the deck was stacked and flat out rejected the premise. Others saw the alternating vulnerability and arrogance of these characters in tandem as more universal and representative of other situations where an imbalance of power breeds dehumanization. All the questions, of course, reflect the world view of the questioners and in this way the conversation became an extension of the dynamics of the play, and as engaging and revelatory.
As an American, I found myself reacting to the unconscious biases of one of the play’s middle eastern protagonists; then I turned the lens around, and saw my own unconscious biases, more clearly in contexts closer to my own home. To say that the play is an eye-opener is an understatement. The implications are universally relatable in any context in which hierarchies divide us and it’s harder to see and feel what connects us.
There is a line in the play that goes: “They built this place where we can never be the same.” The play metaphorically leads us through that place, a thicket of some of the thorniest issues of our times, then points a way to return us to ourselves and each other. THE RETURN is a significant, relevant step on that journey.
Thank you, Guy Ben-Aharon, for nine years of honest, challenging work, opening our eyes on the world of Israeli theater and its universal implications for connection and love. YOU MUST SEE this final production THE RETURN at the Calderwood Pavilion through May 19!