The Baltimore Sun

January 29, 2006
Tracing the Scars in Israeli Society
Motti Lerner's The Murder of Isaac Exposes Wrongs, Touches Raw Nerves and Presses for Change
By J. Wynn Rousuck

Dressed in jeans and a navy sweater with his dark, receding hair cropped short, Motti Lerner looks more like a clear-eyed realist than a believer in the impossible.

The Israeli playwright is speaking to a small group gathered in a CENTERSTAGE lounge to hear about The Murder of Isaac, a play so controversial, it has never been produced in his native country.
"Only people who believe they can do what is impossible to be done can embark on projects that can lead to change," Lerner tells his audience. "I don't think any theater project ever changed anything, but the illusion is very important."

Lerner's two-act work—which is receiving its English language and American premiere at CENTERSTAGE—takes place in an Israeli rehabilitation center for patients suffering from post-traumatic-stress disorder. As part of their therapy, the patients stage a play about the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by an ultra-Orthodox Jewish law student.

Resurrecting an excoriating episode of Jew-versus-Jew violence would be risky enough, but the play also offers frank depictions of religious extremism and of the political left and right.

The Murder of Isaac is hardly the only Lerner play to deal with unvarnished realities, however. Pollard (1995) is about Jonathan Pollard, an American convicted of spying for Israel. Kastner (1985) is about a Hungarian Jew who was accused of collaborating with the Nazis. Bus 300 (1997), a five-part television series, is about a scandal that arose from the actions of the Israeli secret services after a bus hijacking in 1984.

At 56, Lerner may be one of his country's most incendiary playwrights. A well-known writer for the screen as well as the stage in Israel, he was a 1994 recipient of the Israeli Prime Minister's Award. The Jerusalem Report magazine has described him as "one of the most provocative playwrights in Israeli theater."

"He definitely writes about issues that are very deep, run very deep in Israeli society. [They're] almost scars. So that when he picks into these scars, sometimes people do get upset," explains Tzahi Moskovitz, an Israeli-born actor appearing in the CENTERSTAGE production, which begins a five-week run Friday.

Under a microscope
In Israel, The Murder of Isaac has already become a lightning rod for debate. Tel Aviv's Cameri Theatre commissioned the play in 1998, but instead of making its debut there, the play had its premiere in Germany. Leah Rabin, the prime minister's widow, attended the 1999 German production, and, according to The Jerusalem Report, remarked, "It's somewhat shameful that the world premiere didn't take place in Israel."

However, after a columnist for the Israeli newspaper, Maariv, labeled the play anti-Semitic, some members of the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) urged Israel to pressure Germany to ban the production.

In this play and others, Lerner puts Israeli society under a microscope, whether using a mental hospital to symbolize the country's ills, or introducing touches of fantasy, or finessing history for the sake of what he has called "dramatic compression."

His approach strikes some as harsh. But according to Ari Roth, artistic director of Washington's Theater J—which commissioned the English translation of The Murder of Isaac—Lerner's motivation is rooted in an inherent belief that by presenting extreme examples, he can nudge society to change.

"Here is an Israeli who loves the country and is fighting for its soul, and he's doing that by using some of the most powerful tools that the theater has to offer, and those are provocative arguments and brutal kinds of confrontations between people and using black humor. ...

"All of these techniques are being used to provoke an audience into feeling that something is wrong and that something has to change. That's really what he wants to do, and the strategy is going to upset some people," says Roth, who has known Lerner since 1993 and has produced two of his plays and readings of three others, including The Murder of Isaac. (A reading of a fourth, Pangs of the Messiah, is scheduled for Feb. 7.)

To prepare audiences for The Murder of Isaac, CENTERSTAGE is offering a series of community outreach programs, co-sponsored by the Baltimore Jewish Council. Yuval Rabin, son of the late prime minister, was a panelist at the first of these, a discussion that took place earlier this month. The second, a forum titled "Political Violence" and featuring a panel of political scientists, will be held Wednesday.

Provocative theater
The Murder of Isaac has had preliminary staged readings or developmental workshops at a half dozen North American theaters, but CENTERSTAGE's efforts to find another regional theater willing to co-produce a full-scale staging proved fruitless.

"I sort of knew what the reaction would be, but we sent it around," says CENTERSTAGE artistic director Irene Lewis, who is directing the play. "It's provocative in the true sense of the word, and a lot of theaters don't choose to go in this direction with provocative."

Beginning with a staged reading during its First Look series, CENTERSTAGE has been working on The Murder of Isaac for a little more than three years. Lerner, however, has been living with it for much longer.

The idea for the play was initially raised in a conversation with the artistic director of the Cameri Theatre, three days after Rabin's funeral. "Instinctively, we felt something must be written, but I felt it's too early. I don't have enough perspective and I was so overwhelmed by hatred and anger," Lerner says from his home outside of Tel Aviv. "It took me three years to feel I was ready to write."

He came up with the rehab hospital setting a few weeks after he began writing. The setting was inspired by Peter Weiss' Marat/Sade, a play that takes place in an asylum. "It was hard to find a better theatrical metaphor," the playwright says, describing the rehab center as "an image of Israel and ... of the madness in the society. It's an extreme image, but it's become such a useful image."
"It's a very audacious theatrical strategy," says Theater J's Roth. "If that metaphor proves compelling and the audience can believe they're in this cuckoo's nest, then it will be gut-wrenching theater and it will have a cathartic effect."

Roth—whose theater is in residence at the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center—also has a theory about why Israel has not been ready to see The Murder of Isaac. "Imagine 10 years after President Kennedy was killed and Oliver Stone went on Broadway with a version of this, and imagine that the United States was just the size of New Jersey and everybody knew each other and there was something this impudent and radical and conspiratorial," he explains.

Actor Moskovitz, who has lived in the United States for seven years, says, "Israeli society has a very hard time dealing with this issue still because it says so much about who we are and where we are as a country. Not just the murder itself—because obviously leaders have been murdered for trying to instill peace all over the world, Rabin is not the first—but how deep that division [goes] and the willingness of groups in the country to ... try and stop that process."

'I cannot leave it'
On a personal level, Moskovitz says Rabin's murder affected him so deeply, it helped spur his decision to move to the United States.

Lerner—who describes himself as "a mix of secular, atheist, heretic [but] very Jewish culturally"—also considered leaving Israel after the assassination. "There was a moment," he acknowledges. "There was a lot of despair, and I felt that there's no future and that the situation is going to deteriorate—as it did. But I realized what I always knew, that I was born there and my life is so much a part of Israel that I cannot leave it."

The great-grandson of settlers from eastern Europe, Lerner was raised in Zichron Yaakov, one of the first Jewish settlements. His parents, who are farmers, bought a piano when Motti was 7, and he took his music lessons seriously, hoping to become a concert pianist. Bowing to what he calls "family pressure," however, he studied physics and mathematics at Hebrew University.

After graduating in 1970, he spent three years in the Israeli army, including serving in the Yom Kippur War. "After the war, I really needed a way to express my political views," he says. "The war was such a traumatic event, I needed to find a channel to express what I learned in the war, and mathematics was not a very good vehicle. [Mathematics] wasn't a way to talk about the political consequences of the war, and the theater seems to be a wonderful vehicle, so it became almost a natural way for me."

Lerner studied theater in San Francisco and London, and he has had plays produced in countries including Australia, Austria, England and Switzerland. He's working on a new play for the Cameri Theatre called Dinner with Dad, which he describes as "a political play about how serving in the army creates tragedies at home—the impact of the service back at home. We send our children, they come back different people."

The Cameri's artistic director is coming to CENTERSTAGE next month to see The Murder of Isaac. "Today, it's easy for me to admit that perhaps the play was not ready when I gave it to them," Lerner says now. "I really believe that as a result of [the CENTERSTAGE production], he will change his mind. ... It's not the same play they rejected a couple years ago."

In addition, the play will have a reading at Habima, the national theater of Israel, in March. And Playwrights Canada Press will publish the English language translation (by Anthony Berris) next month.

Wherever the play is produced, however, Lerner is sure its themes will resonate. "The play is very universal. It's not only about Israel, it's about humanity. It's about the easiness in which people everywhere go to war, the easiness for people everywhere to kill, about the easiness of people everywhere to avoid recognizing the suffering of the other."

And though it may seem impossible, ultimately Motti Lerner does hope The Murder of Isaac will encourage theatergoers to change—or at least reconsider—their thinking. "The most important thing for me is that audiences will be courageous enough to think deeply before they support a war anywhere in the world," he says "Before they support another war, they must consider the price. They must consider other options."


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