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A History of Violence

A Too Volatile Past and Present Muddle This Lost Examination of Israeli Politics

By John Barry | Posted 2/15/2006

Murder of Isaac

By Motti Lerner

At Center Stage through March 12

Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade is a play about a play about an assassination performed by asylum detainees. Motti Lerner’s Murder of Isaac is a play about a play about an assassination performed by traumatized victims of terror attacks. So let’s take the conceit at face value: The project is doomed. It’s one thing to have a bunch of lunatics playing games with history. It’s another to put that history game in the hands of people who have been bulldozed—literally and figuratively—by a disaster that hasn’t even yet reached its crisis point.

If Isaac’s structure was borrowed from Marat/Sade, the dramatic effect is not achieved. There is no suspension of belief in this one; there’s no sense that the characters have anything to do with one another. There are a few uncomfortable chuckles, but that’s about it. The stage itself isn’t quite a stage—more of an expanded, open cafeteria. The tensions that blow up onstage were lit offstage, and the characters are ripped, with minor adjustments but obvious counterparts, from the pantheon of Israeli politics.

The plot, basically, goes like this: Several years after Yitzhak Rabin’s shooting, patients at a rehabilitation center for posttraumatic stress disorder victims get together to perform a musical version of Rabin’s 1995 assassination, generally considered the death knell of the Peace Now movement as a force in Israeli politics.

The parts they choose are almost perfectly matched to their patient history. Binder (David Margulies), who was wounded in the 1948 War of Independence, plays Rabin. Yuda (Olek Krupa), a sergeant in the 1967 war, plays Ariel Sharon. Shulamit (Lise Bruneau) is a settler whose children have been killed by terrorists; she plays the prototypical settler. Eliahu (Jeffrey Ware), the orthodox gravedigger, plays the settlement rabbi.

The case histories don’t count, though. The middleman doesn’t mean much unless you read the program notes. For all practical purposes, the audience—which presumably listens to NPR enough to know what’s going on—is being invited to watch Israel dig its own grave. If that’s an offensive way of putting it, remember, it’s not just a play—it’s a play within a play.

So criticizing Murder of Isaac as a play may be just plain missing the point. This is an in-your-face, no-holds-barred visit to a country in permanent posttraumatic mode. That gets hammered home by the clock on the set, which is set to real time. We know when the play is going to end, and we know (sorry) how it’s going to end. And when it does end, we’re going to be facing the same problems. Rabin the peacemaker has been shot, and the chances for lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace have tanked. The anger and the fear have boiled back to the surface, and the old wounds, which were once thought healed, have only festered.

What redeems this artistically is the Dostoyevskian paradox: Although Lerner’s sympathies are fairly evident, the petty demons steal the show. While listed as a supporting role, the play’s central destructive force seems to be Eliahu. He’s an ex-gravedigger who suffered trauma in the wake of a terrorist attack, but for all practical purposes, he’s a Hasidic rabbi of the Judea/Samaria area who brings down the curse on Rabin. He’s more of a conduit for hatred than a source of evil, and he revels in the role without getting his hands dirty in the process; Ware’s performance is scary and fascinating.

Bruneau’s Shulamit plays the part of a settler who has been attacked by terrorists, and her character has absorbed her hatred and turned it into a vicious sexual energy. If the point isn’t made—and here the play may go over the top a bit—she comes out in one performance of the “musical” with Judea and Samaria each fastened to one of her tits and Golan Heights—well, you get the idea. Krupa’s Yuda, an admixture of Sharon and Binyamin Netanyahu, is the Israeli general who has learned that power is beauty, and that carefully constructed, logical arguments really leave no room to breathe.

And what’s frightening is that, against them, the peacemakers don’t stand a chance. Binder—read: Rabin—is crippled by anxiety and doomed by history. His reasoning is abstract, his message is hard to grasp, and he feels vaguely out of touch. It feels as though the playwright has set up his favorite character—or at least his mouthpiece—as a sacrificial lamb, dramatically and metaphorically.

Maybe Lerner has set his own play up for the same fall. The monologues and, to a lesser degree, the songs are almost painful in their intensity, and the performances, at points, are mesmerizing. The only thing unconvincing about this production is the premise itself—that these damaged victims are capable of collaborating on anything, much less a play. And if anyone expects this situation to translate into any sort of artistic closure, they’ve got the wrong idea.

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