Israel seems to live eternally in the headlines, but no headline can capture the countless individual dilemmas that surely face the citizens of a country under pressure from within and without.
In “Ulysses on Bottles,’’ receiving its North American premiere at ArtsEmerson, Israeli playwright Gilad Evron shines a light — mostly illuminating, occasionally unfocused — on the internal tensions and contradictions arising from Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.
This is the first full production by Israeli Stage, founded by 25-year-old Guy Ben-Aharon, who directs “Ulysses on Bottles.’’ All in all, it’s a promising debut for the company.
For ArtsEmerson, meanwhile, “Ulysses on Bottles’’ represents the fusion of two strands of the mission that the presenting and producing organization has pursued since its launch five years ago: to broaden the lens of Boston theater so it encompasses an international perspective, and to furnish a showcase for small local companies (Company One Theatre, the now-defunct Whistler in the Dark Theatre) that are doing interesting work.
In apparent recognition of Israeli Stage’s potential, a blue-chip cast has signed on for “Ulysses on Bottles,’’ though not all of them are put to the best use. The play traces the personal and political fallout when an Israeli-Arab ex-teacher, played with emotional force by Ken Cheeseman, is arrested for trying to sail to Gaza — in defiance of the blockade — on a raft made of plastic bottles, bearing a cargo of Russian literature.
“There’s no one who’s not in need of Russian literature,’’ he insists, adding: “Believe me, the Gazans are dying to study Russian literature.’’
His odyssey earns him the nickname Ulysses from the authorities, along with a criminal charge for making “an attempt to conspire with the enemy.’’ Saul, an Israeli-Jewish attorney played by Jeremiah Kissel, agrees to defend him pro bono, and quickly tries to persuade Ulysses to take the deal offered by the authorities: no jail time in return for a pledge not to try to reach Gaza again.
The attorney finds himself caught between his quirkily rebellious client and the power of the state, represented by the icy Seinfeld (Will Lyman), an official in Israel’s security agency who views Ulysses as “a dangerous man.’’ Further complicating matters is the fact that Saul is also working for Seinfeld: His task is to advise him how to abide by the embargo’s laws regarding, for example, the minimum food supply that must be allowed in Gaza.
Also in the mix are Horesh (Daniel Berger-Jones), a young attorney who is none too fastidious about the clients he represents, and Eden, Saul’s wife, portrayed by Karen MacDonald. Eden keeps pressuring Saul to perform in a pink dress at an upcoming charity event for disabled children. The pink-dress business takes up too much time and quickly grows wearisome. Nor is Eden really a role worthy of MacDonald’s talents.
There’s a certain resonance to the idea of access to the works of Nabokov, Dostoyevsky et. al. as an allegorical representation of freedom. It grows partly out of the playwright’s personal experience: Evron was inspired to write “Ulysses on Bottles’’ by the imprisonment of his son, a soldier in the Israeli army, after the son refused to serve in the occupied territories. When prison authorities refused the son’s request for books, Evron wrote letters to them, making the case for the son to be allowed to receive novels.
The scenes between Kissel and Cheeseman are mostly charged with urgency. This kind of moral and philosophical complexity is a pitch in Kissel’s wheelhouse, and he does not disappoint. The actor’s eloquent face is a map of conflict, and it is there that we see Saul’s crisis of conscience — and the larger issues raised by “Ulysses on Bottles’’ — playing out.
There are missteps, such as the moment when Ulysses tells Saul he was prevented from bringing books across the border by a guard who told him Gazans “don’t need to read.’’ When asked why not, the guard replied: “So they don’t get any ideas … (t)hat their lives could be better.’’ Really? That line smacks of cartoon villainy.
Far better, and more reflective of the incisiveness and nuance “Ulysses on Bottles’’ attains at its best, is the scene where an anguished Ulysses asks Saul: “How can I agree to such a deal? If I do, I’m just an episode, some inexplicable incident. A whim. But I’m making a serious statement here. You can’t keep people from reading. That’s as bad as not letting them eat.’’
ULYSSES ON BOTTLES
Play by Gilad Evron, translated by Evan Fallenberg
Directed by: Guy Ben-Aharon. Set, Ron De Marco. Costumes, Charles Schoonmaker. Lights, Scott Pinkney. Sound, David Remedios. Production by Israeli Stage.
Presented by ArtsEmerson.
At: Jackie Liebergott Black Box, Paramount Center, through April 25. Tickets: $25-$49, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org
ULYSSES ON BOTTLES
Play by Gilad Evron,
translated by Evan Fallenberg
Directed by: Guy Ben-Aharon. Set, Ron De Marco. Costumes, Charles Schoonmaker. Lights, Scott Pinkney. Sound, David Remedios. Production
by Israeli Stage.
Presented by ArtsEmerson.
At: Jackie Liebergott Black Box, Paramount Center, through April 25. Tickets: $25-$49, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.orgDon Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.