A dreary scene confronts us on the small, square stage: a counter with knives and a cleaver, a dirty bucket, blood splashed against the back wall, on the floor. It's 1990, the first Intifada is in process, and a pair of Palestinian brothers, Chaled and Na'im, are arguing in a butcher's shop in a village somewhere in the West Bank. The argument is at a high point of anger and distress, and for a while it's hard to figure out exactly what they're arguing about. At a recent demonstration, someone named Nadal -- the seven-year-old brother of the two men, it turns out -- was shot by Israeli soldiers. Nadal is alive but paralyzed, and only "lies there drooling." Chaled and Na'im are also examining the terrifying possibility that a fourth brother, Da'ud, is the collaborator whose treachery brought the soldiers to their village. There's a lot riding on this question: Na'im is a paramilitary fighter, and his men deal out an agonizing death to anyone caught spying for Israel. If he's convinced his brother is guilty, Na'im will turn Da'ud over to them. If he believes otherwise, he'll attempt to protect him.
Da'ud works as a dishwasher in Tel Aviv, a job that supports his wife and child. He's in the process of building a house. Striding on stage carrying a jar of olives, he seems at first like the most forthright and successful of the brothers. But in the fraught cat-and-mouse game that follows, his mask slips, and slips again.
The horror of life under Israeli occupation -- the checkpoints, random killings, loss of choice and dignity, house demolitions -- provides the backdrop and foundation to the action in Masked, although these elements are never discussed or described directly. This is the first play to deal with the Intifada, and it does so from a Palestinian perspective, although it is the work of an Israeli playwright, Ilan Hatsor. When William Styron wrote his acclaimed novel The Confessions of Nat Turner many years ago, some African-Americans protested that no white author could really understand the black experience, let alone deliver the truth about a slave uprising, and much discussion ensued about whether an oppressed people's story belonged only to those who had lived it, and whether anyone else had the right to tell it. As far as I know, Masked, which has been shown in Israel, Europe and at New York's LaMama and is now being presented by Maya Productions at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, has encountered no such protests. It would be interesting to know if Palestinian audiences have seen it, and if so, how they reacted.
Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, 1750 13th Street, Boulder
Presented by Maya Productions through June 3, 303-443-2122, www.bmoca.org
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The play takes the immorality of the occupation for granted, and also reveals the ways in which it has twisted Palestinian culture and society. Da'ud is willing to sell out his entire village for a measure of security for his brothers, wife and child; in addition, having collaborated with the Israelis even once, he would have no choice but to continue. Na'im is fighting not only the occupation but the entire go-along and get-along system represented by Da'ud -- and although Masked takes place before the Palestinians began deploying suicide bombers, his methods are ruthless. Chaled, the younger brother, seems to be searching for a way to avoid the paths his brothers have taken, but the daily constrictions he faces make this impossible.
Taut and charged, on the surface more political thriller than political exploration, Masked is sometimes difficult to watch, but it's never boring. Tyler Ryan and Ryan Eggensperger turn in credible and committed performances as Chaled and Na'im, respectively, but it is Ami Dayan's powerful Da'ud that makes the air vibrate with tension. This man isn't likable. He's a compromised character, tough and clear-eyed, willing to shift, bargain, bully, do whatever it takes to survive. It's hard to find the play's moral center as blame flashes between him and Na'im: If Da'ud was responsible for the coming of the soldiers who shot Nadal, it was Na'im who took the boy to the demonstration despite Da'ud's warning and who left him to take cover when the shooting started.
These are people living on a ledge so narrow and slippery that one misstep brings disaster. It is a situation that unhinges minds even as it unhinges the minds of those who condemned them to this place, and it is not sustainable.