BOSTON — Joshua Sobol was so taken by what he saw in the performance space occupied by a little theater company here that he broke down in tears. What moved this venerable figure of the Israeli stage — by some lights, the country’s most esteemed playwright — was not only the dexterity with which his play was being handled, but also that anyone was doing it at all.
Unable to find a company to produce it in Israel, where all theaters depend greatly on subsidies from the government, Sobol’s “The Last Act” was getting its world premiere in Boston, by a group known as Israeli Stage, run on a shoestring by a 28-year-old Israeli American, Guy Ben-Aharon. The hour-long piece, about an Israeli actress and Palestinian actor who attempt to stage an Israeli version of a sexually charged classic play, August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie,” depicts the killing of the Palestinian by Israeli intelligence agents, who have been eavesdropping on the rehearsals.
The 78-year-old Sobol, who has had dozens of his plays produced in Israel — and one of them, “Ghetto,” on Broadway in 1989 — explained to the 50 theatergoers who filled a tiny theater space in late May in Boston’s South End why his play wasn’t produced in his homeland: Its portrait of a provocative relationship prompts uncomfortable questions. Worn down by the unceasing tension with its Palestinian neighbors, the Israeli public and its hard-line government are in no mood to tolerate, he said, the harsh depictions of Israeli society’s treatment of Palestinians that he and other established Jewish dramatists want to present.
“It is self-imposed blindness,” Sobol said in a discussion after the performance. Leaders of the major theaters sense that Israelis are overwhelmed by “the facts of the conflict. People don’t see a hopeful [sign] right now,” he said. As a result, theaters “suppress any confrontation with the serious issues coming at us.”
Although representatives of first-rank Israeli companies, such as the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv, argue that their organizations do not shy away from controversial work, American artistic directors whose companies have become havens for marginalized Israeli playwrights say otherwise. Groups such as Israeli Stage and, even more prominently, Mosaic Theater Company in Washington consider themselves outposts for Israeli dramatists who find it increasingly hard to get a hearing in Israel for their most political works.
“It’s representative of something much bigger: the intolerance of dissent,” said Ari Roth, Mosaic’s artistic director and a producer of plays from both Israeli and Arab artists, through his long running Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival, which he started in his previous job, at Washington’s Jewish theater, Theater J. “To be in conversation with playwrights who used to be the darlings of mainstream Israeli culture is to learn that these are difficult days for these artists.”
Roth is talking about artists such as Einat Weizman, a highly regarded actress who, by her own characterization, has become a pariah in Israel, as a result of documentary plays such as “Palestine, Year Zero” — about the Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes — and “Prisoners of the Occupation,” which tells the stories of Palestinian inmates in Israeli jails. (Her play about her struggles with censorship, “Shame (With Comments From the Populace),” will be performed at Mosaic in January.)
“I feel it is my duty to bring the Palestinian narrative,” Weizman said by Skype from Israel. “There is no way I can live without resisting, and I’m willing to pay a price.”
Unlike in the United States, where theaters receive virtually no public support, Israel’s theaters derive a healthy portion of their budgets — between 15 and 30 percent — from state coffers. Only recently, Israeli artists say, has the government begun to put pressure on arts groups over their content, particularly when the art concerns the issue of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Miri Regev, the culture minister in the rightist Netanyahu government, has drawn fire from progressive elements for the aggressive clampdown.
“We always had government support,” Israeli playwright Motti Lerner said from his Tel Aviv home. “But the theaters and the artists made it very clear to the government that the money they get is to raise an oppositional voice. Until recently, the theaters got their subsidy and they kept their freedom of expression intact.”
Israel’s major companies, such as Cameri and Habima Theatre, the country’s national theater, seem to be caught in a political vise. They are criticized, for example, by progressive elements in Israel for acceding to the state’s demands that they offer programming in the disputed Israeli settlements on the West Bank. And when they bring work abroad, they are subject to boycotts and other protests, such as two companies faced last summer when they jointly staged an adaptation of the David Grossman novel “To the End of the Land” at Lincoln Center. It did not matter to boycott advocates, who included a number of American playwrights, directors and actors, that Grossman is himself a vocal critic of Benjamin Netanyahu, the hard-line prime minister. That Cameri and Habima were subsidized by the government was enough for the protesters to object to the play’s presence.
In an email, Sigal Cohen, director of international relations for the Cameri — founded four years before Israel’s 1948 establishment as an independent state — said she did not know Sobol’s “The Last Act” and could not comment on that play. But she pointed to the company’s recent staging of two plays by Henrik Ibsen, including “An Enemy of the People,” and an adaptation of Grossman’s prize-winning “A Horse Walks Into a Bar,” as evidence of the Cameri’s commitment to challenging work. “What I can assure you,” she wrote, “is that we are not afraid of staging political and critical plays.”
In a country where an estimated 40 percent of the population goes to the theater — a staggeringly high proportion — the question of what audiences get to see at its most prominent venues holds outsize importance, too. Dramatists of Sobol’s stature can find takers for their less politically pointed work, but they want their pieces examining the most critical issue facing the country to be seen, too.
With “The Last Act,” though, Sobol will have to be content for the time being with American eyes on the work. Ben-Aharon, who directed “The Last Act” and even arranged for an Israeli Arab actor, Louis Abd El Massih, to come from Israel to portray the Palestinian character, Djul, says the 16 performances at Boston’s Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA played to a robust 93 percent capacity. Not everyone who came left happy; the artistic director received his share of angry letters from those who considered the piece too severe in its judgment about Israel.
Relaxing at a nearby bistro after one of the performances, Sobol said that he was pleased by the care Ben-Aharon took with his play but that there was one ingredient missing. “I am writing for an Israeli audience,” he said. Will he retreat from exacting topics if that audience can’t be reached? Sobol seemed defiant. “I write,” he added, “what I think I should write.”