Theater Review: At Israeli Stage—Alma Weich Places a “Price Tag” on Violence

The timeliness of this staged reading made for one of the most heated talkbacks for any of the presentations in Israeli Stage’s six-year history, at least in my memory.

Price Tag by Alma Weich. Staged reading directed by Guy Ben-Aharon. Presented by Israeli Stage at Goethe-Institut Boston on November 15.

Patrick Shea and Will Lyman in Israeli Stage's production of "Price Tag."

Patrick Shea and Will Lyman performing in Israeli Stage’s production of “Price Tag.”

By Ian Thal

Hophni (Phil Taylor) paces in a prison cell—his simple black yarmulke marks him as an Orthodox Jew. A soldier (Jared Brown) escorts Hophni’s father, Eli (Patrick Shea), into the cell—his business suit and bare head mark him both as a man of authority and a secularist. This simple difference in clothing symbolizes one of the many fissures dividing Israeli society.

The father is a member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. He isn’t horrified that his son has been arrested, but by the terrorist act Hophni freely admits to having committed: detonating a bomb that killed 112 worshippers in a mosque in the West Bank. Meanwhile, Hophni’s younger brother and co-conspirator, Pinehas, lays in a hospital bed in a coma, kept alive by doctors and machines, with the brothers’ mother by his side. Compounding the tragedies: Pinehas’s wife went into labor while the bombing was carried out. She died in childbirth. The newest addition to the family has neither parents nor a name. None of this fazes the elder son. Eli questions Hophni about what he was trying to accomplish, but none of his responses make any sense to his father—morally, politically, or strategically. The son merely insists that he has done what “all of you” wish they could do in their heart of hearts. His father is bewildered by the violent atavism that animates the young man.

Soon, they are interrupted by Libman (Will Lyman), an attorney and veteran political ally of Eli’s. Libman, in an unnervingly cheerful manner, starts to elicit the information he needs to concoct a plausible legal defense. In the past, the family has relied on Libman’s skills when dealing with Hophni’s scrapes. But this time around, the accused insists on being defended by a member of his extremist West Bank settler community. The soldier repeatedly bursts in to warn the trio that the station is surrounded by protestors. He wants the parliamentarian to leave for his own safety—ironically, the protestors are not Arabs angry about Hophni’s murderous actions, but his supporters.

Price Tag takes its name from a viral terrorist movement identified with the fringes of the Israeli far-right. It is an extremist minority inspired by an ultra-religious settler movement that Hophni represents. The ‘price-tag’ movement does not merely reject the Israeli government’s (stated) long-term goal of creating a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The group feels that the counter-terrorist actions of the Israeli Defense Force and the Shabak (the country’s internal security service, roughly analogous to our FBI, also known as the Shin Bet) have not sufficiently curbed Palestinian terrorism through legal means. Thus members of the movement engage in their own acts of terror—not against the militant groups the Israeli government targets, but civilians: Palestinians in the West Bank, both Christian and Muslim Arab citizens of Israel, and sometimes even their fellow Jews. Price-tag attacks are mostly acts of arson and other forms of vandalism, but at times individuals have been assaulted. Israeli politicians and religious leaders across the spectrum have condemned these tactics, but the fact that both churches and mosques have been targeted only makes the crimes of Eli’s sons easier to imagine.

Alma Weich’s choice of names are for her characters are not accidental. In her introduction to the reading, Israeli Stage board member Brynna Bloomfield explained that they are drawn from the first book of Samuel: Eli, a descendent of Aaron, was a high priest of the sanctuary in Shiloh. (Not coincidentally, the city was located in the mountainous region of Samaria, in the modern day West Bank.) His sons Hophni and Pinehas are officiating priests who not only abuse their authority by taking more than their fair share of the sacrificial offerings. They also sexually exploit the women who work in the sanctuary. Eli, upon discovering his sons’ misdeeds, rebukes them, but so lightly that they continue their crimes. In the end, despite the power of Eli’s goodness, his sons’ crimes bring a curse down upon the entire house. In her wry subversion of the Biblical allegory, Weich turns the religious sons into the defilers. The “good” secular, left-wing father, through benign neglect, has allowed his sons to become murderous extremists.

Weich was a corporate attorney before quitting the profession to become a dramatist. That background no doubt has some bearing on the play’s portrait of Libman’s unsentimental, no-nonsense approach to his job as a defense attorney. It is also evident in how Eli, the parliamentarian, sees the rule of secular law as a foundation for Israel’s legitimacy in a region dominated by dictatorships and sectarian armies. In a democracy, political violence is not simply an expression of a will-to-power but an attack on the elemental rule of law in a civil society. Of course, Hophni insists that he and his co-conspirators are merely expressing a desire shared by all members of Israeli society—to defend itself from aggressors—even if their targets share only a language and a religion with the aggressors. The threat that far right settlers may pose to Israeli democracy is not mere dramatic license: 20 years ago, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir, an Orthodox Jew who viewed the former general’s efforts to make peace with both Jordan and the Palestinian Authority as a threat.

The dramatic tension is relentless: Was the brothers’ unprecedented massacre an isolated attack, or was it just the first movement in a larger orchestration? Is Eli there simply as a father trying to understand how he could have raised a monster? Attempting to save what’s left of his family? Or is he representing the government? How much of Hophni’s fanaticism is rooted in a conviction that violence leads to redemption? How much of it springs from a resentment toward a left-wing politician father who was often absent during his childhood? The reading came only days after attacks in Paris and Beirut and the downing of a Russian plane by the Islamic State. We have seen a season of random knife attacks by Arab youth on Jews in Jerusalem. Another terrorist bombing by a different set of brothers remains a vivid memory for many Bostonians. The timing made for one of the most heated and engaged talk-backs for any reading presented in Israeli Stage’s six-year history, at least in my memory.

Is Weich warning us about future she hopes will never come to pass? Or is it an allegory about how we, in the democratic West, problematically attempt to see political violence as a symptom of disaffected youth, or of people who feel they have no other voice, or the actions of a few bad apples or lone wolves? (The latter excuses have been used for everyone from the Tsarnaev brothers to Dylann Roof.) Could this approach prove feckless when violence threatens the foundations of our societies?

Director Guy Ben-Aharon chose to use an alley staging, confining the reading between two banks of chairs. The idea was to evoke a prison cell in the elegant space at the Goethe-Institut. Will Lyman is wonderfully eccentric as the consummate professional who is able to crack jokes even as he compartmentalizes his personal feelings in order to do a job that needs to be done. Jared Brown’s role as the soldier was limited; it didn’t give him a chance to show his full range as an actor (hopefully this will be remedied the next time he works with Israeli Stage). Most of the drama was carried by Patrick Shea and Phil Taylor, and their chemistry kept the production on a slow burn up until the very end. Taylor exuded fanatical self-confidence, but the linchpin here was Shea, whose Eli embodied both the archetypical virtues of fatherhood and their subversion. His was a compelling figure of well-intentioned authority who had been defied; a moral man whose forgiveness for his sons’ sins may have only encouraged their wickedness, a patriarch condemned to irrelevance by his progeny.

Still, Price Tag sounds a nuanced note of hope: in the Biblical story, even though the wicked sons bring about a curse on the House of Eli, Eli goes on to teach a young boy who would become the prophet Samuel, the king-maker who heralds the reigns of Saul and David.

Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.

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