Last night, Gilad Evron’s Ulysses on Bottles opened the Mosaic Theater Company’s 2017 Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival.
Described as an allegory, Evron’s Ulysses challenges contemporary American and Israeli audiences to acknowledge some stark and painful national contradictions.
In a nation obsessed by legal systems, how often does legality hide the grossest injustices?
In a nation dedicated to a free press, how often does that freedom obscure truths too painful for a nation to witness?
In a nation believing itself in possession of the moral high ground, how often does that holy ground prove itself lacking any real substance?
Indeed, Ulysses on Bottles is theatre at its most provocative. When the fundamental mythologies of nations confront the harsh reality of states, do people go on pretending their own superiority, or do they build higher walls so as not to see the horror of the human carnage, or do they so dehumanize the Other that that Other becomes expendable without guilt or remorse?
The premise of Evron’s tale is simple. A man (Michael Kevin Darnell) builds a raft out of plastic bottles and tries to sail into Gaza with Russian Literature. He truly believes that the people there need the mind-expanding worlds of the Russian literary greats.
He is nicknamed Ulysses by the Israeli press.
Unfortunately, Ulysses is arrested by Israeli security forces. Why? Reading materials are not allowed in Gaza. Why? Because the 2 million inhabitants imprisoned in Gaza could not bear the freedom that reading inspires.
For, not only does the Israeli state calculate and control the number of food calories per inhabitant allowed into the Strip, but they also control the amount of literature. For many years a books’ black-market thrived in the Gaza Strip, as did the market for paper and pencils. In 2017, the first English-language library opened, in a family home in northern Gaza: it has 400 books.
In a world increasingly focused on technological advances, it is easy to forget the importance of reading literature in the development of the human imagination.
Frederick Douglass claimed that once “you learn to read, you will be free forever.” Thus, he taught that reading was a necessary pathway to human freedom and dignity. Douglass was lucky: his slave owner mistress didn’t understand the importance of illiteracy to the master’s control. She taught Douglass how to read for several years before her husband discovered her crime and stopped it.
For after Nat Turner’s Virginia slave rebellion in 1831, the South prohibited reading among slaves: Turner had been a preacher who taught the Bible to his followers, particularly those passages about the Israelites freeing themselves from the Egyptians.
Hence, in Evron’s powerful Ulysses on Bottles, Ulysses’ lawyer (Matthew Boston) does his best not to empathize with his client’s plight, while Ulysses does his best to get his literature-less legal defender to understand the importance of Dostoevsky.
Meanwhile, the lawyer’s wife (Elizabeth Pierotti) tries to get her husband to put on a pink tutu and sing to disabled children, while the lawyer’s legal associate (Chris Genebach) wants nothing more than to bring as much money into the firm as possible.
The only other lover of literature in this tale of a nation “approaching spiritual death” is the Israeli state official (Sarah Marshall) who is in charge of keeping the Palestinians living in Gaza alive, even if barely. She is most concerned about staying just on the legal side of human rights violations.
Directed by Serge Seiden, Michael Kevin Darnell’s portrayal of Ulysses is uniquely powerful. Deeply committed to those worlds that only the imagination inspires, his struggle for human dignity is both beautiful and agonizing to watch.
As he stands on a chair in his cramped cell, surrounded by the stench of feces and urine, proclaiming in reverent terms the triumph of human dignity, we know such love has no place in this world.
And yet we watch.
And yet we dream.
And yet we hope.
Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.
Ulysses on Bottles plays through June 11, 2017, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing in the Lang Theater at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.
Review: ‘Ulysses on Bottles’ at Mosaic Theater Company of DC by John Stoltenberg.