The line separating fiction and reality blurs to fuzzy effect in Israeli author Joshua Sobol’s “The Last Act.” In the play, getting its world premiere from Israeli Stage at the Calderwood Pavilion beginning Friday, two characters, both actors, are improvising an adaptation of the watershed 19th-century Strindberg drama “Miss Julie,” about a lustily primal encounter between an aristocratic young woman and her father’s valet, who plot to run off together.
In this version, the characters Gilly and Djul create and rehearse scenes by drawing from their own lives — as an actress and wife of a Israeli security service officer, and a Palestinian actor who’s a citizen of Israel. While the Strindberg play dealt with the class chasm between the two characters, Miss Julie and Jean, in Gilly and Djul’s version, the gulf between them is a mix of class, social and political status, and national identity.
“So when Djul is talking about Jean’s moments of servitude, he brings to bear his experience growing up as a Palestinian and what his life is like,” says Annelise Lawson, who plays Gilly opposite Louis Abd El Massih’s Djul. “It then forces Gilly to draw on the parts of her life that are uncomfortable. My character is privileged. She lives in this beautiful house on this side of the Wall. And her husband works for the intelligence service.”
Beginning with the second scene, the action of the play is divided into two adjoining spaces. In one, Gilly and Djul rehearse their “Miss Julie” adaptation, which they’re hoping to stage in Ramallah in the West Bank. In the other, two Israeli security service agents spy on the actors’ conversations. The commander suspects that Djul might be part of a Hamas plot to kidnap Gilly and hold her hostage. The twist? The other intelligence agent is Gilly’s husband, Ethan.
But even to the audience, and perhaps to Gilly and Djul themselves, what’s real and what’s not real is up for debate. Gilly and Djul went to drama school together and always had an unrequited romantic spark between them, so the line between reality and fiction keeps moving.
“You’re left wondering whether the two people you’re watching are acting in a rehearsal or whether they’re actually speaking to each other as humans. So [Sobol] has added a wonderful layer to the entire play,” says Craig Mathers, who plays Ethan.
“It’s genius because whenever it becomes uncomfortable between them, it can be placed under [the guise of] ‘Miss Julie,’ ” adds Guy Ben-Aharon, the Israeli Stage artistic director who’s helming the production. “If Gilly and Djul have a difference between them, if they disagree and go at each other, or when the passion ignites, they can just say, ‘Oh, that was Jean and Julie. That wasn’t us.’ ”
In a phone interview from his home in Tel Aviv, Sobol reveals that he was inspired to write “The Last Act” following the 2015-16 wave of violence in Israel known as the “intifada of the individuals,” in which lone-wolf perpetrators, not affiliated with any terrorist group, committed random stabbings of Israelis. The knife attacks, Sobol observes, “expressed the degree of despair of the Palestinians. On the other hand, the overwrought reaction of Israelis reveals the degree of vulnerability of our people. The play is about the tragic situation where people lose any confidence and belief in one another and everyone becomes suspicious of everyone else.”
Indeed, Ethan is pressured by his commander, Dana (Marianna Bassham), to continue spying on his wife’s meetings with Djul — even though he doubts she would betray him. “His work comes home to roost, so to speak,” Mathers says, “because his boss feels that his wife is somehow being compromised. Then he has to come home and have dinner with her, knowing they’re both being watched.”
And the intelligence officers never consider alternative theories. “The play is a mirror of the situation in which so many lives have been bent in the wrong direction or destroyed because of the ongoing conflict,” Sobol says. “Leaders on the two sides are not really seeking a peaceful solution, because they draw a political benefit from the conflict. But we as the people can build a rapprochement between Israelis and Palestinians, and we have to do it.”
Despite Sobol’s stature as one of Israel’s leading writers and thinkers, “The Last Act” is receiving its world premiere in Boston because the playwright hasn’t been able to find a home for it in his country. “Sobol is Israel’s most famous living playwright, and he can’t get this play produced in Israel because of the politics, because theaters are afraid,” Ben-Aharon says.
Last year, Sobol wrote a play called “Bereaved,” about an encounter between two families, one Israeli and one Palestinian, who had both lost children in the conflict. It was mounted for two performances at a theater festival in Tel Aviv, but he and the producer are still looking for a venue to stage a full production. “Theaters are quite reluctant to take it,” Sobol says. “I hope we will find one. But it’s not easy.”
Because most Israeli theaters are state-subsidized, Ben-Aharon believes they shy away from overtly political work that might offend certain segments of the population. Sobol doesn’t disagree. “The ministry of culture is very hostile to any plays that raise a question about whether we are doing enough in order to find a solution to the conflict,” he explains.” It’s the policy of the government to say, ‘Everything is all right, and don’t ask questions about it. Just accept what we are doing.’ But as long as we are living in a democracy, it is a duty of the theater to be outspoken, to open people’s eyes, to help people understand the situation, and to ask pertinent questions about government policies and the political status quo.”
Ben-Aharon simply hopes audiences come and engage with the issues in the play and are willing to “listen, inquire, and reflect” together afterward, which is the Israeli Stage mission. Following every performance, there will be an audience dialogue, with Sobol in attendance at shows May 18-23.
‘The play is about the tragic situation where people lose any confidence and belief in one another and everyone becomes suspicious of everyone else.’
“You can agree with it or disagree with it. But come take part in this conversation,” Mathers says. “It’s easy for us to see the people in Israel and Palestine as four inches inside a box on our television screens. But the issues are real. The characters are real. And the people living in that part of the world are real.”
The Last Act
Presented by Israeli Stage. At Martin Hall, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, May 18-June 1. Tickets $25, 617-933-8600, www.israelistage.comChristopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.