Israeli tensions spill onto the stage in new ‘Enemy of the People’

Stan Barouh - Boaz Gaon (left) and Nir Erez (right). The two wrote the play "BOGED: An Enemy of the People," opening at Georgetown University in partnership with Theater J.

Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” is proving to be a play for all political times. During the fall election season, “Enemy” was on Broadway starring Richard Thomas, while a separate production at Baltimore’s Centerstage featured a “Mad Men”-civil rights era design (skinny ties, TV monitors).

Now comes the U.S. premiere of “Boged (Traitor): An Enemy of the People,” direct from Israel and being presented by Theater J at Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center. The adaptation is set in Israel’s southern region, and it is up-to-the-minute in its attack on modern pollution and celebration of the country’s recent widespread social protests.

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“Five hundred thousand people were in the streets,” says “Boged” playwright Boaz Gaon of the protests that began in the summer of 2011. “Out of a country of 7 million, it was an amazing, amazing experience.”

The cost of food and housing were among the issues that led protestors to camp out in tent cities in Tel Aviv. Like the Occupy movement, the agenda was broad, and sometimes was accused of being vague. Health care, education, the concentration of wealth into the hands of a few — the list of concerns was long. And it included the environment, a problem that had captured the attention of Nir Erez, Gaon’s co-writer, a year before the social justice movement began.

Erez was a fan of “An Enemy of the People,” Ibsen’s 1882 play about a whistleblowing scientist who declares that the waters in his spa town are toxic. The scientist is silenced not only by the mayor (who is also his brother), but by a mob anxious to protect their jobs at any cost.

He had proposed adapting it for the Beer Sheva Theater, where he is on the artistic council. Beer Sheva is a growing city in the Negev desert; just outside Beer Sheva is Ramat Hovav, a vast industrial park. Since 1975, Ramat Hovav has been an economic driver in the underdeveloped region.

But it has also been the largest toxic waste dump in the country. Giant evaporation ponds were built at Ramat Hovav for wastewater. Gaon says, “You go and see it, it’s like miles of holes in the desert.”

The ponds leaked, polluting the groundwater, and the air wafting from the factories into Beer Sheva often smells.

Erez says, “You didn’t have to have great imagination to see that you can take this play and put it in this situation.”

Erez, 47, asked Gaon to collaborate on the “Enemy” adaptation in part because Gaon, 40, has spent much of his career as a journalist.

But Erez, who often looks to Gaon to help him find the right English word to complete a thought, had another motivation for recruiting his friend.

“I am lazy,” the wiry Erez says with a charming smile as Gaon grins. “He knows how to work hard.”

“Boged (Traitor)” is the second play in Theater J’s “Voices From a Changing Middle East” festival, which began last month with “Apples From the Desert,” a drama of religious fundamentalism vs. youthful progressivism. Gaon’s “Return to Haifa,” adapted from the 1970 novella by Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani, created substantial friction for Theater J when it was part of this festival two years ago, but that’s not why his “Boged” is being staged at Georgetown. Scheduling conflicts with a film festival at the D.C. Jewish Community Center auditorium prompted the move, according to Theater J artistic director Ari Roth.

“Boged” features several actors from “Apples,” including longtime D.C. actress Sarah Marshall, who plays the town’s powerful industrialist. That’s one of the many revisions made during workshops in North Carolina and in a public reading on the set of the Centerstage “Enemy” last fall; In Israel, the industrialist character was a man.

Why the change? The answer draws another smile from Gaon.

“The director, Joseph Megel, wanted to work with Sarah Marshall,” he explains.

Erez and Gaon, sitting in the lobby of the Georgetown theater, discuss the gender change intensely for several minutes. Both describe themselves as feminists, but they decide that having the business figure played by a woman would be a bigger deal in Israel than in the United States.

“I think the Israeli society is more macho-istic,” Erez says, as Gaon agrees.

The biggest adjustment they’ve made to “Boged” for U.S. audiences is to soften its combativeness. The playwrights fear that Americans are ruffled by the kind of direct, rough-and-tumble dialogue that Israelis take for granted.

“That’s not to say in the States no one says anything bad to anyone,” Gaon says. “I’ve been watching your television, and your political debates. But in Israel, the discourse is like sandpaper. Here, it’s like a table. It’s smooth.”

Erez reports that some actors and audiences weren’t sure at first what to make of the play’s indictments in a conflict that echoes the fracking debate in the U.S. (the subject of the current Gus Van Sant-Matt Damon film “Promised Land”).

“In a democracy you should know how things happen,” he contends. “Know the facts. And then you should take an action . . . You have to choose. You’re a grown-up.”

When the drama opened in the spring of 2011 it was apparently well received by audiences in Beer Sheva (where the theater is supported by the very industries the play attacks) and in the northern city of Haifa, where concerns have been raised about the link between refineries and the area’s rising rates of cancer. “You felt that people were really ready to translate that anger and frustration into action,” Gaon says.

Gaon suggests people have awakened to “the art of lowering the red line,” an incremental, almost invisible erosion of standards in politics, environmental issues, banking — across the board. He thumps the table gently, emphasizing each word of the protest movement’s slogan: “The People Demand Social Justice.”

Activists and leaders have created new organizations or reinvigorated old ones and have filtered into party politics.

“Fresh views,” Erez says.

“Younger voices,” Gaon adds. “Idealistic. Less corrupt.”

“And more people are more aware,” Erez says. “That’s the most important thing. Of course it has to do with the Internet and Facebook and everything, but now people support struggles of private groups very highly. Because they know that they are us and we are them. Although we are torn up politically in a lot of subjects, in those subjects I think it made Israeli society more . . .” He looks to his colleague.

“United,” Gaon suggests.

“United,” Erez agrees.

The playwrights believe that Israel’s politics have been changed. They will find out Jan. 22, when the nation holds elections.

Gaon assures Erez, “I’ll be back to vote.”

Boged (Traitor):
An Enemy of the People

by Boaz Gaon and Nir Erez.
Translated by Boaz Gaon.
Directed by Joseph Megel.
Through Feb. 3 at Georgetown University’s
Davis Center for the Performing Arts,
37th and O Streets NW.
Call 800-494-8497 or visit
boxofficetickets.com

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