Ulysses on Bottles
by John Stoltenberg
Near the beginning of this transporting play, the actor Sarah Marshall, wearing a man-tailored white suit, unrolls a map of Gaza and lays it on the floor. She then dumps onto it 200 tiny plastic toy people. Down on her knees, she arranges them with her hands so they are exactly contained within the Gaza borders. Each figure, she says, represents 10,000 people, and in total these toys represent the two million Palestinians who live locked inside the Gaza Strip, “the most densely populated place on earth.”
Marshall is playing an allegorical character named Seinfeld who stands in for the Israeli surveillance state. She proceeds to explain in detail how Israel ships into Gaza barely minimal food and other necessities, and how its captives’ procreation will within a few years make the place uninhabitable.
With this quirky symbolic show-and-tell explication, we immediately get a vivid picture in our mind of a what is in reality an inconceivable calamity—and in that eye-opening moment are dispelled all preconceptions of what a trenchant political play about the Occupation will look and sound like.
This will be no discourse or treatise. This will be no diatribe or tract. On the contrary this staging of Israeli Playwright Gilad Evron’s Ulysses on Bottles (translated by Evan Fallenberg) is every bit as startlingly theatrical in its conception and as engrossing in its execution as we have come to expect from Mosaic Theater Company. And Ulysses on Bottles is anchored by a performance in the title role—Michael Kevin Darnall as Ulysses—that ranks among the most viscerally transcendent and indelible yet seen in Mosaic’s distinguished two seasons.
The curious title bears explanation. “Ulysses” is the nickname given by the authorities to a jobless former teacher now in prison (the fictional character played by Darnell). Ulysses was arrested and charged for attempting to sail through Israel’s sea blockade of Gaza on a raft made of empty plastic bottles. His quixotic mission: to teach Russian literature in Gaza. Thus his handmade vessel had a cargo of books.
“Why Russian literature, of all things?” his pro bono defense lawyer, Izakov, demands to know. “You think the citizens of Gaza are particularly in need of Russian literature?”
“Believe me, the Gazans are dying to study Russian literature,” Ulysses says matter of factly. “It’s a breeze that rises higher than the kites they fly on the shore.”
The poetry and preposterousness in that reply epitomize what’s brilliant about Evron’s play. The notion that in the midst of their deprivation people in Gaza would find respite and uplift in Russian literature strains credulity. But it precipitates a terrific play.
Surrounding the unleashed imagination of Ulysses are four supporting characters who grounded in the real world—that is to say, the society of Israeli professional privilege.
Marshall’s Seinfeld is the most intriguing among them. Hard to figure where she’s coming from; she’s a symbol after all. As written she’s unpredictable. But Marshall makes her riveting..
Izakov is a flat-footed straight shooter who’s wrapped very tight, Matthew Boston in the role is rock solid. Izakov genuinely wants to help Ulysses get out of jail; he pleads with Ulysses to accept the state’s deal: release in return for a promise not to venture forth to Gaza forevermore. But a sympatico romantic Izakov is not, and the fact that his wife, a shallow society matron named Eden, is pressuring him to put on a pink dress and sing at a fundraiser has him in a funk.
Elizabeth Pierotti nails Eden’s smug smarm. Another lawyer, Horesh, comes in to the story as a self-serving foil to Izakov’s do-gooder-ism (to Horesh Gaza is “a fucking shit hole… If someone had the guts he would drop a bomb and wipe out the whole shebang”). Chris Genebach keeps him bearable, no mean feat.
That pink dress bit—an allusion to a Thomas Mann story—at first seems oddly out of place. But in a twist, that pink dress and that uptight lawyer have a scene together that enriches the play in the most surprising way. (Note that it comes with a musical earworm.)
Set and Costume Designer Frida Shoham has conceived an amazing unit set. It’s all gray, with walls up to the fly space, but they’re made of scrim such that actors can be seen before the enter and after they exit. There’s a wooden chair center stage that functions multiple ways, including as a glider. Lighting Designer Brittany Shemuga and Sound Designer Roc Lee animate this plain gray space for eye and ear whether in a prison or at a party. And Serge Seiden directs with compelling clarity and concision. Among the most forceful scenes was the one with Ulysses alone in his cell is standing on the chair in agitation because his waste bucket has spilled.
The collaboration between Seiden and Darnell had to have been extraordinary, because the actor is delivering a depiction of Ulysses’ inner turbulence that is so daring and disclosing it drives the momentum of the entire production. In each of his scenes—when he vehemently argues his cause and his case with his lawyer, when he’s alone in his cell venting his sexual frustration, when he remembers and reenacts his son, who was born severely disabled and died at age six—Darnell is nonstop transfixing.
Ulysses is imprisoned but his poetic passion flies sky high. He is a hero of the heart, an artist of resistance, a victor in vision even in defeat. Quite remarkably, inexplicably actually, Ulysses on Bottles floats us into a headspace where only illogical allegory can make sense of the senseless. It’s a stunning theatrical voyage and not to be missed.
Running Time: 75 minutes with no intermission.
Ulysses on Bottles plays through June 11, 2017, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.