You might be tempted to dismiss Ulysses on Bottles as a niche-appeal “issue play,” but this first opening for Mosaic Theater since receiving the Outstanding Emerging Theater Company Award at last week’s Helen Hayes Awards shows why you would be wrong and why Mosaic will be an all-around heavyweight on the DC theatre scene for years to come.
For Ulysses on Bottles, recently deceased playwright Israeli Gilad Evron turned his attention to the two million people in the Gaza strip who are essentially held in an open air prison by the Israeli blockade.
Ulysses shows different perspectives on the Gazan crisis through the legal gaze of Israeli lawyer Izakov (Matthew Boston), as his initial dispassion, perhaps like the audience’s, crumbles in the face of the enormity of it all. But Boston isn’t just the voice of the audience here, he’s also a straight man, creating scenes of quirky comedy with some funny, if not fun, characters that keep this play away from droning melodrama.
The ever-gifted Sarah Marshall gets top grins as Seinfield, the Israeli Defense official in charge of Gaza and Izakov’s main client. Some of her laughs come from the awkwardness of Evan Fallenberg’s sometimes flat translation from Evron’s Hebrew, but most of it comes from Marshall’s virtuoso physical comedy. Reminiscent of Dario Fo’s bumbling yet cruel bureaucrats, Marshall’s hilariously frazzled character keeps Izakov on the payroll to ensure that the state of Israel doesn’t legally commit crimes against humanity while depriving Gazans of as many of the basics of human existence as she can.
Those deprivations include, of all things, books. That’s what the titular character is on trial for: attempting to run the Israeli blockade on a raft made of water bottles with a cargo of nothing but Russian literature. Izakov’s pro-bono work has made him Ulysses’ defender, and the tension we see in Izakov at representing these two wildly different perspectives on Gaza keeps both the production and the audience focused.
While we never learn his real name, Michael Kevin Darnall’s whimsical yet powerful performance as Ulysses gives this thinky play much needed soul and lift. This bounce should be no surprise to those who have seen Darnall’s work onstage (Journey to the West, Father Comes Home From The Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3, Animal, Last of the Whyos). He is quickly becoming DC casting directors’ go-to choice whenever they need an exuberant role filled. Sit on the house left side of the theater to get the fullest blast of joyful work.
His vivaciousness fills Atlas’ spacious Lang Theatre, left open and vaulting by Set and Costume designer Frida Shoham, who relies on a crisply professional lighting design (Brittany Shemuga) to flick between Ulysses’ cell, Izakov’s home, and the Israeli Defense Ministry. This clean canvas lets Director Serge Seiden do the work that takes Ulysses on Bottles from being an interesting but niche drama to something great: the creation of appealing and complicated characters.
Ulysses on Bottles
closes June 11, 2017
Details and tickets
I have no real interest or stake in the Gazan and Israeli issues discussed by the play, but I was enraptured by the push and pull on Izakov, who is nominally as disinterested as I am. This tension, this push to taking sides when one doesn’t want to, is a key to converting an issue play into a universally appealing play, and here Ulysses on Bottles and Mosaic Theater have turned that key.
That’s good news for DC theater patrons as Mosaic enters its third season because Founding Artistic Director Ari Roth has a major drive to continue deep, intellectual onstage examinations of complicated international issues. Ulysses on Bottles proves that they can turn out a play that is entertaining and funny, as well as smart and intercultural. Seeing Ulysses will take you on a fabulous journey.
Ulysses on Bottles by Gilad Evron. Translated by Even Fallenberg. Directed by Serge Seiden. Featuring Matthew Boston, Elizabeth Pierotti, Chris Genebach, Michael Kevin Darnall, and Sarah Marshall. Set and Costume Design by Frida Shoham . Lighting Design by Brittany Shemuga . Sound Design by Roc Lee . Properties by Michelle Elwyn . Dramaturgy by Jodi Kanter . Fight Direction by Robb Hunter . Stage Management by Allie Roy. Produced by Mosaic Theatre Company. Reviewed by Alan Katz.