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Larry Litt

Desert Sunrise
Written and Directed by Misha Shulman
Music Composed and Performed by Yoel Ben-Simhon
Scenography by Celia Owens
Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue
Opened Sept. 29, 2005, closes October 23.

Writer-Director Misha Shulman’s latest attempt to portray the Israel-Palestine dilemma in theatrical terms is as much a contradiction and problem as the actual Mideast situation.

It’s actually two plays on one stage: the first act is a battle zone buddy comedy á la Waiting for Godot meets Cheech and Chong. The second act is Lysistrata meets Battle of Algiers.

It’s hard to say why Shulman, a very talented and prolific playwright, would fall into the trap of characters that don’t fit into the same story. Perhaps it’s the need to show off the talented actors that bring this paradoxical play to life.

Tsahi (Aubrey Levy) looks and acts like the nervous kid with a gun that has become standard soldier in political wars around the world. He thinks he has power because his ever strong sidekick, his rifle, gives him power over Ismail (Haythem Noor) who has only his force of will to protect him from soldiers. The rifle is used as a character to control the initial conversation between the men when Tsahi stumbles upon Ismail during a night that will change their lives forever.

As enemies they have more in common than most. They want to live on the land that they both feel they deserve by history, both familial and biblical. The difference is that Tsahi’s family are 60 year occupiers while Ismail’s family are several hundred year residents. Of course this doesn’t jibe with biblical justification for control of the Holy Land by anyone. That’s another history altogether.

The working principle for Shulman’s male characters is “ta’ ayush” which means living together in peace. Which also means “forgetting.” If that’s the case then living together is guys getting high and complaining about women. I’m not sure if that’s the only basis for a civil society, but it sure as hell is a good start. Until the women show up. Then men better shape up or ship out.

The hugely distressed Palestinian woman is the beauteous Layla (Alice Borman), an unforgetting and unforgiving 19 year old would be suicide bomber cum poet of frustration and death. She was born to throw water on the boys’ party. Instead of joining in the fun for a few moments of relief from the conflict’s highly tense and stressful daily hostilities, she goes ballistic when she discovers the boys can have a relationship other than revenge and more death.

Layla’s histrionic speeches make the play into a didactic melodrama of historic proportions. She despises Palestinian men for their weaknesses and surprisingly their strengths. Witnessing her allude to her suicide decision made me want to see her implode. Would that be better than her whining castigations? Do pitiful men really need a bellicose Jiminy Cricket in a head scarf stepping on their heels to remind them that they are so powerless and merely manipulated political pawns in a world of super powers? Can women release their pain any other way?

Yoel Ben-Simhon’s careful and quiet musical score and songs add realistic place to the quite believable desert set by Celia Owens. Bhavani Lee's dances awaken the mystery of the desert night and its nostalgic memories like a sylphen succubus.

The point of Desert Sunrise, that no one currently knows how to implement the eventual peaceful solution to the conflict in the Mideast, comes at the very end of the play. Perhaps it should have been stated from the beginning. Maybe then we could have partied with all the cast.

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