Left to right, Jerry Wasserman, James Gill and Mehdi Darvish star in United Players’ production of Facts. (photo by Doug Williams)
United Players is set to present Canadian Jewish playwright Arthur Milner’s provocative political drama Facts, loosely based on the true story of the 1992 murder of an American archeologist in the West Bank and the joint Israeli/Palestinian police investigation that followed.
The play has been produced in Ontario and the United Kingdom and was translated into Arabic for a tour of various West Bank cities in 2012. The United Players’ production marks the play’s Western Canadian première, with Jerry Wasserman as Yossi, the hot-headed Israeli detective; Mehdi Darvish as Khalid, Yossi’s Palestinian counterpart; and James Gill as Danny, the fervent settler accused of the murder. Adam Henderson helms this production as it navigates its way through some rough waters, exploring not only the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also the religious-secular divide between Jews within Israel. The action takes place in a cramped, hot interrogation room in the West Bank and, as the story unfolds, it is revealed that the archeologist was unearthing facts that brought into question some accepted historical beliefs fundamental to Judaism.
The Jewish Independent sat down with Wasserman, Henderson and Darvish one morning before a rehearsal.
Wasserman – who is also a theatre critic and head of the theatre and film department at the University of British Columbia – described himself as an American Jew brought up by liberal Jewish thinkers. He said his research and immersion into this play angered him, but made him see the Middle East conflict in a new light. “This play really presses a lot of emotional buttons for me,” he said. “It digs down through layers into very specific details of [the] lives of people and, through this complexity, we see things more clearly.”
As to his character, Wasserman said, “Yossi’s father was a Zionist who had a dream of a state which has been compromised by the new wave of radical settlers who he sees as having a medieval way of thinking…. This has changed the state of Israel that Yossi loves. The real conflict in this story is not between Yossi and Khalid, but between Yossi and Danny.
“Because Yossi operates at a high emotional temperature, I had to find the proper rhythms and the right places to come up and go down so that I did not peak too early. There were many challenges, but it was infinitely fascinating. You don’t get too many chances to play a role like this.”
The heart of the story is the investigation, as the two detectives sift through various pieces of evidence and theories on the murder.
“I have acted in over 100 police dramas, both television and cinema, and I have to say that this, by far, is the most complex, sophisticated and confusing ones I have ever been involved in,” said Wasserman. “The research has been very detailed and the play is very accurate, re: police investigation and techniques. It is a tremendous intellectual puzzle. The evidence is circumstantial and we never find the smoking gun. The dialogue is an emotional mine field that we, as actors, all have to move through.”
Police dramas often feature a good cop/bad cop relationship. As to whether or not audiences will get to see that dynamic, Wasserman said, “Yossi tries to act the good cop but he is the bad cop by nature. He has lots of emotional buttons to press. The great thing about this play is that everyone’s buttons get pressed. Everyone has a turn to make impassioned monologues and everyone gets to lay his emotional/political cards on the table.”
Gill finds his role of Danny an interesting challenge. “While so much of his absolutist approach to his faith and his politics is antithetical to my own liberalism, nonetheless, being a Jew gives me an empathy for where his faith and politics are grounded,” he said in an email. “That gives me a starting point from which I can start to encompass the character.”
He sees the essence of the play as “the way in which these three men both conform to and transcend their stereotypes. We start with the ‘facts’ of an Israeli, a Palestinian and a settler and, on one level, each of these men is true to those simplistic profiles, but we discover that each of them is much more complicated.”
For Darvish, his involvement in the play also gave him new insights into the conflict. “I came to understand the Israeli position from an emotional perspective better as a result of working on this play,” he said, “but I also see more deeply the Palestinian position. I see the characters often acting like children throwing tantrums instead of sitting down and logically dealing with the situation. It saddens me because right now I do not see a resolution to the dilemma.”
Henderson said he enjoys working with a small cast and a modern-day setting, which contains no idiosyncrasies as to period or language. With an all-male cast, the action is testosterone driven and reflective of the politics of the Middle East, he said.
Henderson expressed surprise that more Canadians do not know about Milner, whose work he has come to appreciate more during the course of his research and preparation for this production.
“Milner has taken a very sensitive subject and effected meticulous research to create a platform to encourage serious dialogue,” he said. “His position is Socratic – he wants to encourage discussion versus making a point and this is brought home by his equivocal ending.”
Henderson acknowledged that the play is likely to be controversial but stressed that, “the key to theatre is that it is a thought experiment where we can do dangerous things with no consequences except people might have their perspectives broadened. If that is what happens in this play, then we will have accomplished something.”
He added, “As the news media move toward ‘infotainment,’ and the sound bites become faster and shallower, the longer form of theatre allows us to look a little deeper at things. For me, it is critical to protect ourselves from merely having our prejudices reinforced. Theatre was invented as a public forum, and we need to gather, to discuss, now more than ever.”
As to why Vancouverites should see the play, Henderson said, “It is an unusually well-crafted play. It is funny, witty, challenging and surprising, and you won’t find anything like it on television. Also, this is a great opportunity to dress up, go out and mingle with community and exercise the soul. Parking is easy and you come out after the show by the beautiful Jericho Beach with something new to talk about.”
Facts is at Jericho Arts Centre from Nov. 7-30. As an added feature, there will be a reading of Masada, Milner’s companion piece to Facts, after every Friday performance. Milner will be in Vancouver the week of Nov. 11 and will be attending performances during that time. For tickets and more information, visit unitedplayers.com.
Tova Kornfeld is a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.