Tova Naaman, an earnest high school English teacher, stared up at the soldier suddenly hectoring her for documents. She fidgeted for a moment and fished for her wallet, handing over identification with an irritated shake of her head.
The soldier nodded curtly, waving Naaman into a slowly filling theater. The line behind her grew.
"I've never been at a checkpoint before," said Naaman, 54, who lives in the town of Ranana, just north of this Mediterranean city. "That was unpleasant."
Naaman's first checkpoint was only stagecraft, the brusque soldiers a pair of actors. But the disorienting entrance is a preview of what follows inside, where "Tangle," a new play, has been challenging audiences with the complexities and despair of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The production is the collaborative work of nine Israeli actors -- five Jews and four Arabs -- who prepared for their roles with field research and history lessons. It is part of a growing body of political fiction in Israel, generated mostly by young Jewish writers, that reflects a broader intellectual movement known as post-Zionism, which questions the validity of Israel as a Jewish state. The writers challenge the literary canon of early Zionist authors who celebrated the state's creation, sometimes at the expense of historical truth.
"The reason post-Zionism exists is because Zionism couldn't exist in its old form," said Yael Ronen, the production's 29-year-old midwife and director. "This is a new generation's quest to define our own identity as Israelis."
Although political theater has rarely enjoyed broad appeal here, "Tangle" is being staged at a time when many Israelis are newly focused on their old conflict. In leaving the Gaza Strip last month, the Israeli government set off a national debate over Israel's future shape and character that has helped generate interest in work like Ronen's. Soldiers, school groups and the simply curious have been filling the Cameri Theater's 165 seats several times a week for more than three months.
"Political themes were introduced into Israeli theater much more directly during the first intifada," said Abraham B. Yehoshua, one of Israel's most celebrated writers, referring to the Palestinian uprising that erupted in 1987 and ended with the 1993 Oslo accords. "What we are seeing now are the fruits of those earlier works."
Ronen, who wears her mass of kinky blond hair pulled back in a rainbow headband, was raised in conservative Jerusalem, in a household where politics was a topic of conversation but not a call to action. Her father was a director, her mother an actress, and she attended fine arts school in Israel. She also completed two years of compulsory military service, Israel's national bonding experience, as a correspondent for Army Radio.
Her political work is increasingly popular. "A Guide to the Good Life," which explores the occupation's influence on a group of twentysomething Israeli characters, is running at the national theater in Beersheba.
"Tangle" does not have a written script. In preparing the play, the cast members visited Palestinian towns, Jewish settlements and checkpoints. They distributed questionnaires about the conflict, first among family and friends, then to the public. Ronen said the actors also studied history together, drawing on Palestinian and Israeli texts to find out "what they didn't teach us in school."
"People are afraid to see the other side as human beings because it makes it harder to sustain a vivid conflict if they do," Ronen said. "I want this play to reach as wide an audience as possible. Our goal is not to convince the convinced."
The play bounces the audience among the conflict's many stages, populated by characters that are recognizable types. There are earnest Israeli families and troubled soldiers, conflicted Palestinian parents and militant demagogues, cynical human rights workers and daft security guards. The tone alternates between satiric and somber.
The set, illuminated at times by impressionistic film footage, ranges from living rooms to gravesides to the interior of a public bus where a suspected suicide bomber has taken a seat among some very nervous passengers. The scene ends with the suspect, a swarthy Israeli, doing an angry striptease for the driver.
A constant fixture is Israel's separation barrier -- the wall it is building between Israel and the West Bank -- which in one scene cuts through a Palestinian house, leaving the family's kitchen and bathroom "inside Israel."
"Do you use them much?" the Israeli construction worker asks before installing a turnstile and checkpoint in their living room. "When you need to use them, just tell the soldier it's a humanitarian case."
The narrative is loosely structured around the killing of Khalil Barhoum, 11, by Israeli soldiers confronting a demonstration. Yoav and Yoni are part of an elite Israeli army unit, as well as being brothers-in-law. Yoni, in particular, is distraught over Khalil's death, but the two soldiers file a report that states there is no evidence Khalil died because of Israeli fire. Their commanding officer's only correction is to change "Palestinian child" to "Palestinian youth," the military's preferred terminology.
Yoni's mother, Tsippi Peleg, is a good-hearted, silly woman proud of her son's military career but yearning to understand Arabs better. One Friday, she "slices vegetables for peace" for hours after forcing her husband to invite an Arab couple to dinner. The evening ends in embarrassment when she wrestles a beer from her guest because alcohol is prohibited for Muslims. To her dismay, he is Christian.
Although some Israeli characters are portrayed as callow or cruel, the soldiers are plagued by conscience. Yoni, for instance, ends the play prone on his living room couch and unable to return to the army.
That, in part, is rooted in the actors' personal histories. Yoav Levy, a Jewish actor, drew on his time serving in the territories for a scene in which he brutally kicks a young Palestinian rock-thrower huddling on the ground.
One night some soldiers from his unit attended the show, leaving the theater without saying goodbye. Levy, who thought they left angry, found them waiting at the stage door. They embraced and wept.
Neither does the play spare the Palestinians, portrayed in most cases as hapless or vengeful. A gunman kills an Israeli settler's infant in response to Khalil's death. A group of children kicking a soccer ball form the "Football Martyrs" to plan a suicide bombing. A girl with a pink backpack wins the right to wear the explosives belt, which bulges at her waist. She says she'll tell anyone who asks that she's pregnant. "I'm a shahida, I'm a shahida," the girl chants, using the Arabic word for female martyr, as she skips across the stage.
As the separation wall fell back into place at the end of a recent performance, young theater students in the first few rows jumped to their feet in a standing ovation. Older audience members clapped energetically, but most remained seated.
"It brings the story from both sides, and the pain from both sides," said Yoav Younisyan, 18, a theater student from the town of Yehuda. "It was funny, too, in a dramatic way."
The cast emerged a few minutes later and fielded questions from about 50 people waiting for them -- a regular postproduction feature. Some of the 50 praised the work; others complained bitterly over what they called its pro-Palestinian slant. A group formed around the actors. Some audience members shouted about missing historical context; others wept in frustration.
"This is a good thing," she said. "I don't want people to just leave the theater and go home to sleep."