`Masked" is a gripping and still topical 17-year-old play that addresses a provocative subject. There is a very good reason why "Masked," purportedly the first play by a Jewish Israeli playwright about the Intifada (Palestinian uprising), has not stirred up the kind of pre-opening Sturm und Drang that accompanied the New York premiere of "My Name is Rachel Corrie." While Intifada translates as "tremors" or "shaking-off" in Arabic, there is little within the context of this play that could be expected to incite any tremors in the press or the local citizenry. The only activist responses planned are some hopefully civilized and insightful discussions on what can be done about the Israeli-Palestinian issue. (Post-performance talks are scheduled).
Although this play’s sympathies rest on the viewpoint of those in support of the intifada (if not notably with the movement as it has evolved at the present time) it posits some relevant and disquieting issues, especially as it relates to family. Unlike "Rachel Corrie," which was autobiographical and derived from E-mails and diary entries, "Masked" dramatizes a fiction set against the ideological complexities and personal conflicts that confront three Palestinian Arab brothers. It is not, however, altogether surprising that this play, written in 1990 by Ilan Batsor (at the time a first year theater student in Israel), would be considered a hot property. The press release states that scores of productions have been staged through Israel and Europe. A production in 2006 in Boulder, Colorado, preceded its current New York premiere.
Under the sturdy direction of Ami Dayan, the action takes place from evening to dawn in the grim but evidently active back room of a West Bank butcher shop, its blood-stained walls, hanging meat hooks, butcher block tables, even a basketball hoop the evocative work of set designers Wilson Chin and Ola Maslik. The year is 1990 during the first Palestinian uprising. Daoud (Daoud Heidami), a 30-year-old husband and father, has been urgently summoned to come there quickly by his 18-year-old brother, Khalid (Sanjit De Silva), to presumably help him with his work.
It is a ruse set up by Na’im (Arian Moayed), the 20-something middle brother. Na’im, a leader of an unnamed Palestinian militant group, knows that he may be the only hope to save his brother’s life. It will be up to him to find out for sure whether Daoud is an informant and collaborator. He feels he must know the truth before the leadership arrives to, in all likelihood, kill Daoud. Through Heidami’s excellent performance, we can see him as a malleable man pressed and pressured by obligations above and beyond the political. And through Moayed’s always on-the-edge performance, we can feel the rage that prompts this man with uncompromised principles.
The play, however, takes its most poignant and emotionally affecting turn in the character of Khalid. De Silva gives a heart-breaking performance as a conflicted young man who desperately tries to use their fraternity to insure family survival. Although Khalid has recently been recruited into the activist group, he is torn between his love for his brothers and their differing views. Na’im, estranged and disowned by his family, now lives with other activists in the mountains. He believes Daoud knew of an Israeli attack on their Arab village that caused permanent injuries to their seven-year-old brother, now virtually "a vegetable."
Daoud, who has a steady job as a dishwasher in a Tel Aviv restaurant, attempts to provide excuses and explanations, even as Na’im’s interrogation grows increasingly persistent and aggressive. Notwithstanding Daoud’s ability to provide much needed income for the family that includes their parents, his position appears to grow weaker and more defensive. That is until an unexpected shift in power and authority seems to occur. Khalid’s attempt to negotiate an end to violence without blood leads, however, to a resolution in the tradition of classic Greek tragedy.
Khalid’s regrettably elusive, painfully and poignantly frustrating, and ultimately futile attempts to officiate a peace for the sake of fraternity and family mirror many similar obstacles on the regional level that mar progress still today. It is not difficult to relate virtually everything that happens to create dissention and distrust among the brothers in this Arab village to family members during the American Civil War, the troubles in Ireland, Yugoslavia, and certainly today in Iraq. Hatsor does not take either a propagandistic approach or that of a devil’s advocate but rather lets his characters deal with their familial dilemma in very human and understandable terms.
Director Dayan, a cousin of the late Israeli military leader Moshe Dayan, keeps the actors on their toes, as the crisp and tough dialogue tumbles out of their mouths with directness and honesty. The more violent scenes and scuffles are vividly choreographed by fight director Christian Kelly-Sordelet (obviously carrying on the great tradition of his father/mentor, Rick Sordelet). Translations are always risky, but this play’s gritty text has been well attended to by Michael Taub.
It is natural to wonder if Hatsor’s slant on history impedes our response to the drama, either emotionally or intellectually, and if his opinions are unwittingly filtered through the personalities of his characters. On the face of it, "Masked" steers clear of being a diatribe through polemics.
Historic background in brief: The Intifada began in 1987, lasting until 1993. It was created within the Palestinian occupied land, largely the Gaza Strip and on the West Bank, as a protest to Israeli occupation. There is some conflicting opinion whether the first wave of the Intifada was seeded and supported by the PLO (operating out of Tunis), Hamas and Islamic Jihad, or whether it was initially a huge mobilization of the Palestinian citizenry acting under the umbrella of the United National Leadership of the Uprising (a coalition of various local PLO parties) whose aim was to protest the presence of Israeli forces.
Civil disobedience, strikes, and boycotting Israeli products led to increasing acts of violence on both sides and the death of more than 1,000 Palestinians. The Oslo Accords in 1993 put policing authority in the hands of the Palestinian Authority. A second wave to put pressure on Israel began in 2000 known as the al-Aqsa Intifada. It continues with more ferocity today with the PLO in Palestine and with the added politicizing of the events by Arab and international support groups.