ArtsEmerson's "Ulysses on Bottles": Better Call Saul

Will Lyman, Jeremiah Kissel & Karen MacDonald in "Ulysses on Bottles"
(photo: ArtsEmerson)

ArtsEmerson's latest offering is the play “Ulysses on Bottles” by Gilad Evron (translated by Evan Fallenberg), produced by the Israeli Stage in its first fully staged production, as well as North American premiere, at the Liebergott Black Box Theatre in the Paramount Center. Directed by Guy Ben-Aharon, Founder and Artistic Director of the company, it's about as contemporary as theater gets, a tightly woven work (just seventy-five minutes long) about the concept of freedom (especially freedom of information) and how it is defined based on what choices one makes.

The story concerns an Israeli Arab, a teacher nicknamed by the press “Ulysses” (Ken Cheeseman) arrested for attempting to smuggle works of Russian literature into Gaza on a raft made out of bottles (hence the rather provocative title), an act that has been prohibited by the Israeli government. His pro bono lawyer Saul (Jeremiah Kissel) and a disbelieving Israeli military officer, Seinfeld (Will Lyman), Saul's social climbing wife Eden (Karen MacDonald) and another lawyer in Saul's firm, the morally vacant Horesh (Daniel Berger-Jones) all play a part in the tale as it develops, and each contributes an essential angle. “Ulysses” asserts that “you can't keep people from reading”, while Seinfeld suggests that people need to be separated from “ideas that their lives could be better”, and that some thirty years or so hence, the Gaza population will reach twelve million and simply overrun their surroundings. Saul posits that one is “not an observer” in these times. Eden is more concerned with presenting a humorous drag performance by Saul for a children's charity event than with the odyssey of the presumed lunatic teacher. And Horesh voices one of the major points of the play when he asks about a verdict of not-guilty versus actual guilt or innocence: “What's the connection?”

The work itself is impressive, made triply so by the rare (and thus to be treasured) privilege of seeing MacDonald, Kissel and Lyman (once ubiquitous at ART in Cambridge in former days) together again, each of them revealing why they have been so important to the local theater scene for decades. Berger-Jones is also memorable in a smarmy, perfectly nauseating role. Yet it's Cheeseman, in the title role, who commands the stage with his intensely physical craft. He's never been better, and that's saying a lot. The technical credits are superb, from the minimalist Scenic Design by Ronald J. DeMarco to the tremendously effective Lighting Design by Scott Pinkney, eerie Sound Design by David Remedios and perfectly executed Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker that ranges from the sleek upwardly mobile to the ironically absurdist.

At the end of the play, Saul, faced with the oblivious and callous indifference to the fate of “Ulysses” displayed by both his spouse and his professional colleague, reprises the lyrics from a song he sang in an earlier scene, the bland and innocuous Doris Day tune “Que sera, sera”, suddenly subverted and subversive. What will be, will be, indeed.

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