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Listen to me: Epstein in Via Dolorosa.

Considering Palestine

By Ralph Hammann

Via Dolorosa

By David Hare, Directed by Anders Cato

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Through Oct. 21

If you thought Jonathan Epstein was good in Amadeus, he is brilliant in this one-character piece that casts him as David Hare, the eloquent author of this and many other plays that rigorously question matters of faith and belief systems. Via Dolorosa is more personal, though, as Hare based this nearly 90-minute monologue on his 1997 visit to Israel and the Palestinian territory. The text of the autobiographical play states that it is ideally performed by its author, who has played it numerous times, including in London and New York City. His preference noted, it is doubtful that Hare could find a better team of collaborators than Epstein and Anders Cato, who have become two of the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s most valued artists.

Of his journeys throughout the region, Hare found that the differences between the peoples of the warring nations might not be as significant as the divisions that exist between people who live within the same nation. Or in his words, “Sometimes the divisions inside the two communities have been just as important as the divisions between them.” Hare offers a sober view of the mutual suspicions and prejudices that darkly underlie the violence that erupts like an active volcano in the Middle East. His goal is to enlighten and promote discussion rather than proselytize and preach. From his degree of objectivity, the viewer is left to draw his or her own conclusions, albeit they often seem inescapable.

In the play, Hare says that he feels that there is one statistic that stands out most significantly. As he notes, “Arabs who live and work in the Palestinian territory earn well under one-tenth of what their opposite numbers earn in Israel.” Thus, both sides have failed the ordinary Palestinian, and it is this problem of inequality that Hare says must be corrected before anything else can be accomplished. Throughout, Hare’s apparent nonpartisan approach works admirably. His is a voice of reason and conscience, commodities that seem in short supply these days.

Epstein honors these qualities with the compelling mellifluences of his own voice, one that gives further resonance to Hare’s while tidily underscoring his unremitting concern for an essential humanity that knows no political borders. Not once during the uninterrupted playing time does Epstein strike a false note, suffer a telltale hesitation or miss a shift in rhythm or pace. Given the complexity of the piece, this is no mean feat; he is also able to keep all clear to us as he guides us through foreign landscapes and introduces a host of unfamiliar characters. The very textures of Epstein’s voice are such that one can close his eyes and see Hare’s encounters in the mind’s eye.

It’s an uncanny, almost hypnotic adventure merely listening to this actor. This is not to say, of course, that the experience resides solely in the ears. Epstein also has found a subtle physical balance that meets Hare on his terms and never veers toward overstatement. There is here, as there is in the direction, a profound trust in Hare’s words, an unshakable conviction in his sentiments and a dignified trust in his métier and medium.

There is a commitment here to finding coherence in chaos. As such, Via Dolorosa is an especially fitting and worthy close to another distinguished season at the BTF, a place becoming synonymous with theater that matters.

 


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