Voices from the Holy Land: A Festival of Staged Readings of Cutting-Edge Plays, five explosive dramas written by contemporary Israeli playwrights and presented with brio by Theatre Or at six different Triangle locations between Nov. 11th and 21st, ranks among the very greatest artistic achievements of the 2004 theater season. The logistics must have been staggering, but festival director and Theatre Or producing director Diane Gilboa pulled it off — and still found time to play the emotionally conflicted female lead in Hard Love by Motti Lerner, which had only one public performance (Nov. 20th) at the Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, NC. That’s amazing, truly amazing.

I saw the other four plays Nov. 13th at Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh, NC; and I learned more about the roots of — and a possible solution to — the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict by watching some of this area’s finest actors perform staged readings of these topical dramas, book in hand, and participating the post-performance discussions than I have learned from all the broadcasts and publications of the mainstream U.S. news media to date. (Special thanks are due to Nov. 13th facilitators Dr. Michael Taub, who served in the Israeli Defense Forces and now compiles collections of Israeli plays and teaches at Purchase College, SUNY, and former IDF officer Stav Adivi, both of whom provided important context for the four plays presented that day.)

Because I could not see all five shows in the festival in time to write them up in a single review that would still give our readers a chance to see them, last Thursday I jotted down some of my highly favorable first impressions, which I have enhanced and expanded below.

“The Demonstration” by Elisheva Greenbaum and “Masked Faces” by Ilan Hatzor — both provocatively staged by director John Feltch, who keeps audience members sitting on the edge of their seats throughout both plays — are two taut one-acts about what it is like to live in the State of Israel in a State of Fear during the current Intifada.

In “The Demonstration,” which is set in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem, Lenore Field and Nanci Burrows play Ronit and Tami, two desperate Israeli housewives frantically telephoning to try and find out whether either or both of their respective daughters, Marva (Tara Gilboa) and Sigal (Sara Ray), was on a bus that has just been blown up by a female Palestinian suicide bomber. Field is terrific as a peace activist on her way to yet another anti-government demonstration, Burrows is likewise excellent as Ronit’s deeply concerned friend, and David Klionsky read the stage directions with feeling.

In “Masked Faces” — an explosive drama rated R (for language) — three Arab brothers (Polentzi del Rio, Rafael J. Diaz, and Scott Franco) rendezvous in the back of an Arab butcher shop for quite a bit more than just a family reunion. Two of the brothers fear that the third has become a collaborator with the Israelis, and they intend to find out one way or another, using any means necessary.

Del Rio, Diaz, and Scott Franco all give gritty performances as Na’im the Palestinian freedom fighter who has fled to the mountains, Chaled the brother who helps Na’im whenever the informers in their village are not looking, and Da’ud the increasingly well-off brother who may have sold out the village and his neighbors to the Israeli Defense Forces.

In The Fist, written by Misha Shulman and directed with great anti-war fervor by Jerome Davis, two older generations of an Israeli family — father Eli (David Ring), mother Chaya (Dede Corvinus), and grandfather Jacob (Bob Barr), must cope with the death of Uncle Shlomo (Elliot Galdy) in a suicide bombing while simultaneously grappling with the inexplicable and shocking decision of their son and grandson Shauli (Kevin Poole), a decorated officer in the IDF, to go to jail rather than serve in the Occupied Territories.

The violent verbal clash between Eli and Shauli, during a Friday-night family gathering, is reminiscent of many dinnertime confrontations that took place between father and son during the Vietnam War — or may be taking place now during the war in Iraq. Father Eli believes the enemy, those rebellious rock-throwing Palestinians, must be crushed with an iron fist — every man, woman, and child of them. Son Shauli, who has served on the frontlines in the Occupied Territories and seen and participated in atrocities there, refuses to return to duty in the Occupied Territories. Shauli believes the endless cycle of Arab-Israeli violence can only come to an end if, as a first step toward peace, the Israelis turn over the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (taken from Egypt and Jordan, respectively, during the Six-Day War) to the Palestinians.

David Ring and Kevin Poole add new laurels to their acting crowns with their passionate performances in The Fist. Veteran actor Bob Barr likewise demonstrates his virtuosity as an aging Holocuast survivor who fought for the new State of Israeli in its infancy; Dede Corvinus is good as Shauli’s increasingly concerned mother; Carmen-maria Mandley has her moments as Shauli’s wife, Yael; and Marshall Botvinick and Jazz Undy are appropriately menacing as two military policemen who have come to arrest Shauli, but have grudgingly agreed to give him time to tell his family.

Hard Love by Motti Lerner is set in an ultra-Orthodox section of Jerusalem during Act I and a secular seaside section of Tel Aviv in Act II. This emotionally volatile two-character drama, superlatively staged by Joseph Megel, chronicles the stormy reunion of two former spouses who have not seen each other in 20 years, but must meet now because his son and her daughter from their subsequent marriages have begun to date.

Transactors Improv Co. director and consummate comedian Greg Hohn is superb here in the serious role of Zvi (formerly Hershel), a defiantly secular novelist and ostentatiously irreverent intellectual. Zvi is a former ultra-Orthodox Jew who has totally rejected his faith and been physically expelled from his faith community as a result of his heresy.

Diane Gilboa of Theatre Or gives a heart-wrenching performance Hannah, Zvi’s devout ultra-Orthodox first love and teenage bride whose family forced her to divorce him when his views became more and more heretical. Can Zvi and Hannah, who will both soon be free to marry again, find happiness together, or will their monumental religious differences — his aggressive atheism and her fervent belief in God — forever keep these two otherwise kindred spirits apart?

Also set in an ultra-Orthodox section of Jerusalem, Women’s Minyan focuses on the harrowing ordeal of a devout woman named Chana (Jan Morgan) — a model of ultra-Orthodox womanhood — who suddenly and inexplicably flees her scholarly husband and her lovely home and abandons her 12 children, carrying a terrible secret with her. When Chana returns years later with a court order in hand, compelling her family to allow her to see her children, the family refuses to comply — until Chana asks her family and friends to sit as a women’s minyan to hear the full story of why she left and judge whether she should ever see her children again.

Written by Naomi Ragen and dynamically directed by Joseph Megel, this riveting courtroom drama is not for the faint of heart. Its twists and turns and ultimate revelations will leave its audiences clamoring for a full-scale production. Jan Morgan is outstanding as Chana, who can only reveal the terrible secrets about her husband and her rabbi at a staggering personal price.

Sylvia Dante and Christine Constantinou are great is Chana’s chief nemeses, her own sternly disapproving mother Frume Kashman and her supremely scornful sister Gitte-Leah Kashman. Nanci Burrows doubles quite effectively as Chana’s friend in need, Zehavah Toledano, and the reader of the play’s stage directions; and Kendall Rileigh and Whitney Boreiko add touching performances as Chana’s two oldest daughters, Bluma and Shane-Ruth, who deeply resent their mother’s abandonment and, in Bluma’s case, vehemently condemn her out of hand.

Sharlene J. Thomas and Barbara Lang provide welcome comic relief as Etta Levy and Tovah Klein, two extremely nosy and gossipy neighbors making flimsy excuses to witness this family feud. Dede Corvinus and Paula Zacharow were moving as Goldie and Adina Sheinhoff, Chana’s mother-in-law and stuttering spinster sister-in-law whose initial sympathy for Chana is sorely tested when Chana begins to reveal the real reasons for her flight. The angry male voices, howling in rage against Chana, were pungently provided by Marv Axelrod and Gabriel Graetz.

All in all, all five shows featured full-rounded characterizations and savvy staging by directors Jerome Davis, John Feltch, and especially Joseph Megel. For staged readings, with book in hand, these shows were remarkably well developed, with no dramatic stone left unturned. We few — we lucky few — who saw all five will eagerly await a full-scale production of Women’s Minyan by Theatre Or sometime in the, hopefully, not too distant future.

Theatre Or: http://www.theatreor.org/.