It’s his 25th birthday, and Guy Ben-Aharon is getting a lot of text messages. Mixed in with the birthday greetings, though, is another major theme.
“People are saying, ‘I can’t get a ticket to opening weekend, what’s going on?’” Ben-Aharon says of “Ulysses on Bottles,” the first fully staged production by Israeli Stage, the theater company he founded just a few years ago as an undergraduate at Emerson College.
As he sits in a rehearsal studio in Emerson’s Paramount Center on a recent afternoon, Ben-Aharon, the play’s director, is bubbly and upbeat. “Even if you know me, I can’t do anything” about finding extra tickets, he says, punctuating the humblebrag with a genial laugh. A bit of a showman, Ben-Aharon overstates the ticket shortage; as of press time, some seats were indeed still available.
Over five seasons, Israeli Stage has presented a series of new-play readings, actors with script in hand. “Ulysses on Bottles,” which begins performances on Thursday, is a co-production with ArtsEmerson and will have the benefit of that group’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box theater at the Paramount, in addition to a full design staff. Israeli Stage previously mounted a reading of the play in 2012 with much of the present cast.
The production is the North American premiere of the play. Written by Gilad Evron, it’s a taut drama about an Israeli Arab who has been arrested for trying to sail a raft stocked with Russian literature into Gaza, in violation of the travel and trade restrictions put in place by the Israeli government and enforced by its military. (This version is an English translation penned by Evan Fallenberg.)
Nicknamed “Ulysses” by the press, the man proves an enigmatic voice of conscience and affects the people around him — including his lawyer, played by Jeremiah Kissel, and an Israeli military official portrayed by Will Lyman — in unexpected ways. Ken Cheeseman plays the title character.
Dressed casually in blue jeans and wearing green-and-blue glasses, Ben-Aharon watches intently as Kissel and Lyman work on a scene. The director walks around the playing space and sometimes pauses to stand behind a black music stand, where he rests his yellow notepad when not scribbling something onto it.
A few minutes into rehearsal, playwright Evron slips into the room. During a quick break, Kissel steps over to chat and confirm Evron’s attendance at his Passover Seder a few days hence.
The creative team is deep into “scene work” here, experimenting with alternate line readings and teasing out some of the different shadings of meaning implied by each. In this scene, the lawyer Saul Izakov is hearing some statistics about the dangerously cramped conditions in Gaza; over 1.8 million people are reported to be living in the 139-square-mile territory.
“Nothing said here has troubled you?” Lyman’s military man asks.
“Legally, not unduly,” his lawyer responds tersely, the gravity of his tone and the furrows in his brow offering a fuller answer.
This is a big moment for Israeli Stage. It’s not a new thing for Ben-Aharon to work with some of the finest actors in Boston theater — the cast for “Ulysses,” which also includes Karen MacDonald as Saul’s wife, Eden, and Daniel Berger-Jones as an up-and-coming lawyer with Saul’s firm, collectively have earned enough Elliot Norton and IRNE awards to stock a bookshelf. The growing troupe has even taken the unusual step of touring with a staged reading; “Oh God,” featuring Lyman and Maureen Keiller, has gone on the road twice, most recently last fall.
Since founding Israeli Stage with the intention of offering contemporary Israeli plays in English translation, Ben-Aharon, who was born in Israel and moved to the United States with his family at age 9, has since been tapped locally to create similar platforms for works from Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. The audiences, he says, seem unusually invested in the ideas voiced by the plays.
“I think of them as family members who come from Seder to Seder, from event to event,” he says of his patronage, which he estimates is composed of one-half to two-thirds Jewish theatergoers.
David Dower, ArtsEmerson’s artistic director, says he wanted to partner with Israeli Stage and help it make the jump to a fully produced production, in part, because Ben-Aharon has very quickly “established Israeli Stage as a vibrant contributor to the cultural conversation in our city.” Furthermore, “Ulysses on Bottles” offers the chance, uncommon in America, to “hear theater artists in the Middle East speaking for themselves,” Dower writes in an e-mail.
Given the sincerely held passions held on all sides, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians can be difficult to talk about with dispassionate nuance. This play offers no chest-thumping in any direction. It centers on the quixotic mission of an apparent gadfly who is committed to the idea that Gazans should be able to read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but presents all of its characters as flawed and contradictory human beings trying to find the most appropriate responses to troubling situations.
“We’re wondering whether the heavy political questions and debates over Gaza overshadow what we think the value of this play is,” Lyman says, gathered around a table with Kissel, MacDonald, and their director before rehearsal. “We bring the politics of the situation into play because that’s the milieu of the play, that’s where it sits and we have to understand that, but it doesn’t pretend to give any answers to the problem. It really says that we’re all responsible — we’re all right, and we’re all to blame.”
MacDonald calls to mind an injunction from the New Testament.
“Just because you’re in the audience for this play,” she says, “you don’t get to sit in judgment of the people on the stage and their particular story. It’s like, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Beyond the specifics of the socio-political environment depicted here, Kissel says it’s particularly valuable to be exposed to new plays from foreign shores. He notes his appearance in a reading last November directed by Ben-Aharon under the auspices of his group Austrian Stage.
“It enriches your vocabulary,” Kissel says of experiences like these, with the work of non-American playwrights. “It’s almost like taking a vacation. It’s like going to another place and taking that Metro and using that money and trying to think like [someone who lives there], and you come back and you’re refreshed.”Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.