nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
September 29, 2005
It’s astonishing how clearly and easily we perceive our differences: black/white, Yahweh/Allah, man/woman—it would seem that the list goes on infinitely. It is with much more difficultly that we take notice of the ways in which we are alike. Many writers have explored the theme of finding common ground and I always find that search intriguing, but it often seems that no matter how enlightened the exploration the answer to the question of what unites us never sticks.
So the question remains, what will make it stick? Playwright-director Misha Shulman may have the answer. The story he tells in his play Desert Sunrise may not be particularly original but the presentation of it is rife with aesthetics. There’s live music, composed and performed with warmth and modesty by Yoel Ben-Sihin, over and under many scenes. There’s a scrim behind which a dancer (Bhavani Lee) moves with the grace of flight. Shulman never forgets that beauty is as important as the message in the theatre. This is especially important when it comes to activist theatre.
There is an activist organization in Israel/Palestine called Ta’Ayush (“Living Together” in Arabic) that is an Arab-Jewish partnership for peace. For the past five years they have been taking action to stop the vicious cycle of violence in the region. By bringing together an Arab-Jewish cast and crew and presenting a show that explores themes of peace, justice, and universality, Desert Sunrise is a translation of this sort of positive action onto the stage.
It is set in the desert hills of Hebron where for a couple of centuries Arab farmers and shepherds have been living in caves. Ismail, a young Palestinian, lives in one of these caves. On this night, he meets Tsahi, an Israeli soldier on leave to visit his girl. When they first meet they don’t even speak the same language, but they soon find English as a common ground (a nice metaphor for what's to follow).
Ismail and Tsahi slowly but surely discover that not only can they trust each other but they could actually be friends in a world that would allow such a friendship. They sing a song and they drum together, they smoke a little hash; one even attempts to teach the other to slow dance. But of course we wouldn’t have a story if this lasted all night. Into the picture comes Ismail’s girl Layla. She is not from the caves but from a nearby city and her heart aches for justice. She doesn’t understand why Ismail is being so friendly with the enemy, and tensions flare up again. Eventually Layla comes to see why Ismail has let down his guard and she relaxes, but there’s something odd about her behavior this night. She’s acting strangely poetic.
The acting is mostly natural with a few well-placed moments of heightened poetics. Haythem Noor is very endearing as the young Palestinian man who is waiting on his “hawk” (what he calls his girl Layla). Alice Borman teeters between natural and presentational in the challenging role of Layla. Aubrey Levy is in full command of his role as the Israeli soldier who has a lot to learn about the other side (and a lot to offer as well). Levy’s performance is quite moving and unforgettable.
Celia Owens’a set design is simple and attractive. Just a rock, a campfire, and some sand covering the whole stage. Itai Erdal’s low cross-lighting creates some wonderful shadows and plays of light. Shulman’s direction is layered and packed with meaning. Layla’s dance, for example, with her every move shadowed by the dancer behind the scrim, gives us a little peek into her soul.
There are many reasons to see Desert Sunrise but perhaps the most important one is that Shulman presents his message with such eloquence, intelligence, and beauty that it may actual stick with us this time.