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One-person shows are notoriously difficult to pull off, for any number of reasons. The thorniest problem is the necessarily subjective nature of the form. Drama consists largely of human beings in conflict; a solo presents only one perspective — and not always the most reliable one at that. (cf., Tru, Give 'Em Hell, Harry!, and Bully!) Few playwrights have mastered the trick. There's Alan Bennett in Britain, whose Talking Heads series managed the nimble feat of allowing his characters to provide just enough detail for the audience to see the speakers far more clearly than they perceived themselves.
Remember too that most single acts are devised for specific actors: Hal Holbrook, Julie Harris, Lily Tomlin. Performers such as Eric Bogosian and Eve Ensler (and, until recently, Spaulding Gray) write or improvise their own monologues, and can scarcely be bettered in them. Indeed, Gray's work is so specific to his own persona that another actor performing his pieces would be an act of extraordinary hubris — or perhaps plain madness.
Such is the case with David Hare's extraordinary 1998 solo effort, Via Dolorosa. The material is so personal, the piece so recent, and the playwright himself so deeply involved in its exploration, that watching an actor pretending to be Hare himself narrating the dramatist's revelatory experiences robs it of its topical specificity and its genuine authorial voice.
That is precisely what Deep Dish Theater Company does in its current production, performed by David zum Brunnen under the — admittedly fluid — direction of Paul Frellick. That this Via Dolorosa still holds our attention and moves us as it does is attributable purely to Hare's exquisite grasp of place and people and his finely honed dramatic instinct for making a coherent whole from the wealth of material he gathered. But observing an actor as Hare imposes a curiously distancing effect on what is, ironically, exceptionally personal material. We're constantly aware that we're watching, not David Hare, but a simulacrum — and a rather unconvincing one at that.
The piece describes the writer's 1997 visit to Israel and Gaza, and his impressions of their residents. I would scarcely argue against the timeliness of the work as theater. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict resounds more alarmingly today than at any moment in recent history, and Hare's piquant observations illuminate with subtle brilliance the essence of its tragic insolubility. My quarrel lies with its being performed by anyone other than David Hare. Added to which, zum Brunnen's faux British accent is an impediment and, to put it kindly, less than persuasive.
David Hare's work includes any number of superb meditations on the state of post-war British sensibility: the funny and prescient Pravda (written with Howard Brenton); the misunderstood Plenty with its hauntingly ironic final line ("There will be days and days like this"); and a superb triptych — consisting of Murmuring Judges, Racing Demon, and The Absence of War — examining the troubled condition of his nation's public institutions. He is, as few American dramatists, engaged with the world in a spiritual, if overtly political fashion; as he relates in Via Dolorosa (Latin for the Stations of the Cross, and an achingly apt metaphor for the uneasy negotiation between two, seemingly implacable, spheres) his major theme has been faith — the need to believe in something, however secular.
Via Dolorosa raises deeply uncomfortable issues. The novelist David Grossman brands the Six-Day War as "un-Jewish": before the state's 1967 incursion into Arabian land, "ideas" mattered to Israel; now the more modern concept of ownership does. Some Israeli settlers voice irritation at the Orthodox sect for "sucking the marrow from the state." The murder of Yitzak Rabin by an ultra-Orthodox Jew unsettles them because they might have to admit some culpability in one Jew killing another. It is suggested that the aura of victimhood suits both camps, since "victims can do no wrong."
These are incendiary notions, the kind that can raise charges of anti-Semitism, not so much from Israelis themselves as from the Norman Podhoritzes and Midge Decters of America who see any questioning of Israel's policies as an ad hominim attacks on Judaism itself. Yet Hare includes ideas, like that of a distinguished Palestinian who believes the most urgent issue facing his people is the need " to reform ourselves," that eschew any easy taking of sides. Indeed, the most ineffably moving passage in Via Dolorosa describes Hare's visit to the Israeli Museum of the Holocaust, with its endless, overwhelming Hall of Names and that infamous letter from Himmler to his troops, praising them for having "stayed decent."
If Hare's observations have a single failing, it lies in his giving rather short shrift to the culpability of his forebears, who bequeathed us the conflict through their meddling in the Middle East (although an Israeli activist does tell the playwright that "we love the British — now that you've left.")
By the end of Via Dolorosa my notebook was filled with quotations, both Hare's own lines and those said to him by the Israelis and Palestinians he encountered. But on reflection, it seems to me that citing them would be more appropriate to a review of Hare's play-script or of his own performance (broadcast on PBS and available on DVD) than to a critique of this production, which I nonetheless recommend — advisedly — for the engrossing clarity with which this essential modern playwright "swim[s] in the coral reefs of these arguments."
Deep Dish Theater Company presents Via Dolorosa Thursday-Saturday, Feb.12-14, 19-21, and 26-28, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 15 and 22, at 3 p.m.; and Wednesday, Feb. 25, at 7:30 p.m. in the space behind Branching Out at the Dillard's end of University Mall, at the intersection of Estes Drive and U.S. 15-501, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. $14 ($10 students and $12 seniors). 919/968-1515. Note 1: Deep Dish's storefront theater is located in the area behind Branching Out, which is located between Cameron's and The Print Shop. Enter through Branching Out. Note 2: There will be post-play discussions, led by UNC-Chapel Hill professor of Middle Eastern studies Sarah Shields, following the show's Feb. 19 and 22 performances. Note 3: Dr. David Carr will lead the Deep Dish Book Club discussion of Amy Wilentz's first novel, Martyrs' Crossing, at 7 p.m. Feb. 26 in Tyndall Galleries in University Mall. Deep Dish Theater Company: http://www.deepdishtheater.org/dolorosa%20release.html. Via Dolorosa (PBS web page): http://www.pbs.org/viadolorosa/. The Catholic Encyclopedia (1912 Edition): http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15569a.htm [inactive 9/04]. Martyrs' Crossing (Random House web page, which includes an excerpt from the book): http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=0-345-44983-5.