JERUSALEM -- The scene is a street in the Old City, now part of the Arab quarter. A woman pushing a baby carriage is confronted by a soldier armed with an Israeli assault rifle. The sounds of gunfire and cries of pain can be heard close by.

"They're killing everybody there," the woman screams hysterically, and she begs the soldier to let her pass. "I have my orders," he says, barring the way. The woman begins to run. "Halt," the soldier shouts. She refuses, and the soldier levels his weapon, takes aim and shoots her down.

The woman falls dead -- on stage before a standing-room-only audience at the Jerusalem Theatre -- bringing to a close the most controversial scene in the most controversial and provocative new play produced here in years. There is a silence as the play ends abruptly a few moments later, then thunderous applause intermingled with jeers and catcalls.

The play is titled "The Jerusalem Syndrome," and although its ostensible setting is the Jewish revolt against Roman occupation 19 centuries ago, its themes and terrors so closely parallel the violent reality of the present-day West Bank and Gaza Strip that it has become a national cause ce'le`bre.

It has been condemned as a disgrace and a cowardly insult to the Israeli army and hailed as a mirror of morality held up to a nation that has long prided itself on its lofty principles. It has prompted demonstrations and counterdemonstrations. The Israeli cabinet hotly debated proposals to censor parts of the play, and its author and director resigned their positions with the Haifa Municipal Theatre to protest official interference.

No one, it seems, is neutral about "The Jerusalem Syndrome," and it appears that its message will be angrily argued as long as it is performed around the country and as long as the rioting and dying continue in the Occupied Territories. In the 2 1/2 months since the rock-and-bottle-throwing disturbances spread from Gaza to the West Bank to Arab-populated areas of Israel proper, the government's "break their bones" policy of meeting violence with violence has left at least 69 Palestinians dead and thousands more wounded or imprisoned.

The central dramatic device in playwright Yehoshua Sobol's avant-gardist allegory is a role reversal in which a Roman soldier on stage is dressed and armed as a member of the modern Israeli army, and the tattered, downtrodden, rebellious Jews of the play are easily identified with the Palestinians of present-day Ramallah or Nablus or East Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the current Arab uprising was not the inspiration for the play, which was written as one of a series of stage works celebrating the 40th anniversary of the State of Israel and was completed long before the rioting began last December. Critics and viewers have suggested, however, that the play addresses root causes of the unrest and therefore might just as well have taken its text from today's headlines.

Sobol has said little publicly about his motives but has indicated he wrote the play out of a belief that fanaticism in any form is corrosive, that feverish zeal without rational bounds -- including the age-old longing for Messianic redemption among some Jews -- carries within it the seeds of its own ruin.

The Jewish rebellion of A.D. 66-73 -- the historical framework of the play -- brought about the destruction of the Temple and the Jewish state, the beginning of nearly 2,000 years of harsh exile and a fixation in some of the faithful on the prophesied Messiah who would restore them in glory to the ancient homeland. The disaster was led by a fanatic sect called the Zealots, who considered it disloyal to God to acknowledge Roman rule in the Land of the Covenant and felt justified in using terrorism and assassination to enforce their beliefs.

Some Israelis see parallels in the play to actions and claims by present-day ultranationalist organizations that fanatically assert historic Jewish sovereignty over much of the territory captured from the Arabs in the Six-Day War of 1967 -- including the West Bank, which they refer to by the biblical names of Judea and Samaria. Chief among these is a group called Gush Emunim (The Bloc of the Faithful), which considers it a pious obligation upon Jews to establish themselves as dominant among the Arabs of the Occupied Territories, and which, with government acquiescence, has spearheaded the drive to found Jewish settlements there. In doing so, Gush Emunim and its supporters believe, they hasten the coming of the Messiah.

Sobol himself has refused to comment on such suggestions, saying only that members of the audience "must find their own interpretations, draw their own conclusions." For viewers of "The Jerusalem Syndrome," that's been like drawing breath.

One theatergoer here found Sobol's apocalyptic stage vision "horribly on the mark" as a dark reflection of the torrent of violence in the Arab towns. Another reacted to the sounds of an offstage beating with the comment: "All I kept thinking about was that wall in Ramallah," referring to some blood-spattered rubble in that West Bank city behind which Israeli soldiers were observed clubbing Palestinian youths.

Many in the audience identify readily with the character of the perplexed, lonely Roman/Israeli soldier, who is torn by self-doubt and has no idea what he is doing so far from home wielding the power of life and death. The thought of sons and husbands in similar circumstances in Gaza or Hebron came easily to mind. "There's nothing clearer than that," said one viewer.

The citizen-soldier is one of Israel's proudest symbols, and the sometimes negative image of him presented on stage has provoked especial outrage. There was a near riot at a performance of the play in Tel Aviv a few weeks ago as right-wing nationalists wrapped themselves in Israeli flags and chanted: "They are desecrating the IDF {Israeli Defense Force}. The IDF is holy." They interrupted the play repeatedly until police removed them from the theater.

Right-wing politicians have almost uniformly attacked the play, but the criticism by Knesset member Geula Cohen of the ultranationalist Tehiya Party was particularly pointed. Cohen, whose constituency is made up chiefly of West Bank settlers and who has warned that dismantling of the settlements could lead to civil war, declared that the play should be banned as "an abomination," and that rather than seeking to destroy the State of Israel with such works, Sobol should follow the example of one of his stage characters and commit suicide.

Tehiya demonstrators marched outside the theater in Jerusalem with placards proclaiming, "Watching the play is adding gas to the PLO's firebombs," while a left-wing group nearby handed out tickets stamped "Freedom of Expression," with print below reading: "It is forbidden to bring censorship, firebombs or guns into the theater."

Even a number of generally supportive viewers were troubled by some of the play's blunt images, wondering, in the words of one, if it weren't an exercise in self-flagellation. On the other hand, said another, if it can make people consider a political solution to the occupation, then it's worth it.

Sobol describes the play as a "modern tragedy," and its free-form, surreal style is distinctly up to date. There are elements of Brecht and burlesque and Beckett and Sophocles and flashy cinema technique. Time stands still, rolls back, leaps forward. Characters shift quickly between the then and the now, speaking and chanting stream-of-consciousness dialogue.

The set itself is a multilayered dreamscape of tilted glass panels and trapdoors through which characters pop up and disappear. There are about a dozen in the cast. Among them is the Roman soldier, clad in the uniform, combat boots and helmet of the IDF and armed with a Galil automatic rifle, the Israeli version of the M16; a wounded "history professor" wearing a rumpled modern suit and foppish cravat who attempts to direct the action and manipulate events on stage; a ubiquitous "TV reporter" of the pushy, vulgar sort, who regularly shouts out bulletins describing the action, both on and off stage.

The rest make up a group of male and female refugees from savage fighting around Temple Mount, then as now a holy place for Jews, and, since the founding of Islam, a hallowed site for Moslems as well. They are dressed in tatters and patches and are generally indistinguishable from one another except for an old man in a long robe, a younger man wearing a trench coat, undershirt and shorts, and an enigmatic figure called "Mother," who, when any of the other characters finds himself beyond his endurance, offers her bare breast for sustenance.

"This is a play written many years ago; only the actors change," the history professor says as the play opens. The soldier is on some unexplained mission when he stumbles into the group of refugees, some of whom wish to escape the fighting while others seek to join in. The soldier takes them captive, and immediately the Jews beset him with pleas and cries and complaints. "Let us go, we're hungry, we want food," they beg. Other figures pop out of trapdoors, moaning and wailing and displaying wounds. The old man in the robe shouts, "I was killed by Zealots."

This is all a chaotic muddle to the soldier, who responds with a show of power and authority. He pulls down the pants of one man, puts his rifle to the man's head and orders him to sing. Then, suddenly embarrassed by his behavior, he apologizes and begins passing out candy.

They think it's poison, but he eats some to try to persuade them he's a friend. Now the Jews consult among themselves. "Conditions are actually good," they say. "They let us keep our religion. We don't want a war of revolution." The soldier and the refugees then begin singing together: "Give them a little freedom, not too much and they're happy. Let them drink their coffee, go to work ... A little bread, a little love."

The confused soldier confides, "I'm a person just like you. I'm afraid like you," but when the Jews take this for weakness and try to converge on him, he stiffens and threatens them with his weapon, shouting, "I can finish you off one, two, three." Smoke and the sounds of battle and beatings now drift over the scene, and the soldier screams: "I want to go home. I can't stand it any more. Mother!" And "Mother" provides her unique brand of comfort.

There is much more in the same vein, with the soldier sometimes threatened, sometimes threatening, as the line between captive and captor blurs. At one point, "Mother" says of the refugees: "They brought an Eastern philosophy, a glorification of death, of sacrificing yourself for theNo one, it seems, is neutral about "The Jerusalem Syndrome," and it appears that its message will be angrily argued as long as it is performed around the country and as long as the rioting and dying continue in the Occupied Territories. cause." The soldier agrees, saying, "Craziness has gotten into their heads! The Messiah has gotten into their heads! This city is full of prophets!"

Later, he begins instructing the refugees on how to wage a guerrilla war, and most important, how to make the enemy forget who they are -- exactly what is happening to the Roman soldier. Then together they sing "Love is the word ... . Give up fighting ... . Make love not war." At this point, the history professor steps in and scolds them, shouting: "You're pushing away the Redemption."

A little later comes a hysterical offstage bulletin from the TV reporter: "They're shooting in the air! They're shooting at the legs! Twenty thousand dead!" At this, a Zealot among the refugees declares: "Never again shall my people kill my people. Is this the end of the world?" Another says, "They cut off our left hand; they cut off our right hand so we cannot fight. They cut out our tongues so we cannot say what they do to us. As long has we have life, the revolution will continue." Pressed to maintain order, the soldier implores: "What do you want from me? I'm only following orders. Do you think I like war? Do you know what garbage I'm eating. If I say a word, they'll kill me. Everyone's crazy."

Then the soldier tells them: "Only dead people get out of here. Make yourself sick, cover yourself in something smelly, they'll think you're dead." There are some references to the survival of Judaism through quiet teaching and study, and the old man in the robe orders his son to kill him. The son obeys, strangling the old man, which acts as a signal for general slaughter. "Everybody is judging everybody, everybody is killing everybody," the TV reporter shrieks.

The woman with the baby carriage now appears amid the mayhem to be shot down by the soldier, and, in a cacophonous conclusion, we understand that the revolt has been smashed, the nation destroyed and the Zealots wiped out through massacre and mass suicide.