Monday, April 15, 2024

Blood Brothers

When Israeli playwright Ilan Hatsor wrote his three-character drama “Masked” in 1990, it was never intended to be controversial. Dealing with issues of

loyalty and betrayal among Palestinian Brothers during the First Intifada, it was written at a time when, as Hatsor said at the time, “many Israelis felt more and more sympathy for the Palestinian struggle.”

Over ensuing decades, and through a second intifada, the opposing sides have grown more extreme, in government as well as on the streets. In today’s polarized climate, any play that depicts one side or the other with seeming sympathy will be greeted with controversy, even if nothing in the piece has been altered. But “Masked,” which is running through Aug. 7 in an exceptionalGableStage production, comes off just as timeless and unslanted as it inevitably felt when it first premiered. Yes, one of the characters spits on the very idea of Israel – and he speaks of the nation with the same disgust one might employ when referring to butchers, which in his experience the Israelis were – but it’s important to separate the playwright from his creations. This is a play driven by facts, not opinion, and certainly not propaganda. You don’t side with one faction over another. Besides, “Masked” is not so much about Palestinians rising up against Israelis so much as Palestinians clamping down on supposed collaborators within their own ranks, a tendency that led to nearly as many Palestinian deaths as were caused by Israeli forces during the intifada.

In front of an astonishingly realistic set design by Lyle Baskin – a butcher shop in the West Bank with animal carcasses dangling in front of a bloody, heavily postered wall — a life-and-death conflict plays out between three brothers. Na-im (Nick Duckart) is a Palestinian loyalist and activist sympathetic to the resistance movement. Daoud (Carlos Orizondo) has earned Na’im’s scorn and worse; he works at a restaurant in Tel Aviv and is rumored to be an Israeli informant, possibly leaking the information that led to the brain-death of Na’im’s son at a violent rally. Caught in the middle is Khalid (Abdiel Gabriel), the youngest brother and most trusting and apolitical of the group.

What plays out is a harrowing chamber piece in a brutal, locked room, just as stifling and claustrophobic, in its own way, as Sartre’s “No Exit.” That title certainly applies to these brothers; early on, it becomes apparent that one, if not all, of the brothers will be leaving the room in a body bag. The death count remains a mystery right up to the end, as allegiances change, both onstage and in the audience.

Director Joe Adler couldn’t have cast a better trio of actors. Duckart and Orizondo are powerhouses of learned authenticity, as convincing as if they spent decades toiling in occupied Gaza. The veneer of performance is stripped away completely; we’re not watching “acting” so much as “becoming.” Gabriel has the fewest number of lines by far, but he is just as compelling a presence onstage, even when he has to pantomime his character’s nervous, conflicted emotions.

It is true that left-wing supporters of a Palestinian state may appreciate this play more than hard-line Zionists. But the conflict at the core of this universal story is as old as Shakespeare, and is just as pliable to any war, foreign and domestic, from any time period. I’m convinced that “Masked” will continue to be staged long after this topical feud has simmered and even if – and it’s a monumental if – these two sides ever reach a peaceful agreement.

“Masked” is at GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables, through Aug. 7. Tickets are $37.50 to $47.50. Call 305/445-1119 or visit www.gablestage.org.

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