Yoni Netanyahu and “To Pay the Price” at Theater J (3 cents)

Theater J’s “Voices from a Changing Middle East” festival continues to educate, as well as entertain. We have learned about (1) the military junta which ruled Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s, the position of both the United States and Israel and the situation of the Argentine Jewish community during this period, (2) life in Palestine during World War II, when the British occupation continued, Jewish immigration was restricted, Jewish terrorist groups were active, and a German intervention threatened, and (3) the period in Britain during World War I, prior to the British League of Nations mandate in Palestine, and the debate within the British war cabinet that led to the issuance of the Balfour Declaration pledging British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In the fourth reading Saturday evening, the focus was on the raid on the Entebbe airport in Uganda to free over 100 Jewish hostages, and the sole fatality of the raiding party, the death of now Prime Minister Netanyahu’s older brother, Yoni.

For those of us who remember the Entebbe raid, it is hard to believe that it took place almost 35 years ago. And because it took place almost 35 years ago, a significant portion of American theater goers have no recollection of it whatsoever, and a large number of those have probably not even heard of it. On the other hand, for many it was a decisive moment, creating pride in Israel reminiscent of the pride that existed after the 1967 Six Day War but had eroded some in 1973, after the more ambiguous Yom Kippur conflict. For this reason, the large audience at Theater J contained a large number of Israelis and perhaps (based on my eyeballing only) fewer younger members.

The play, by Peter-Adrian Cohen, is a very effective and well constructed one-act, 75 minute piece, based largely on the letters of Yoni Netanyahu, many of which have been published over the years. Netanyahu, only 30 at the time of his death, had grown up both in Israel and the United States (his scholar-father taught at Cornell), had attended both Harvard and The Hebrew University, and had already participated with honor both in the 1967 and 1973 wars. A lieutenant colonel, he was picked to lead an extraordinary raid, the success of which still seems miraculous.

There are five actors in the play: Yoni, three of the surviving soldiers from the raid, and his live-in girl friend. The story is placed in the present, and through flashbacks during the raid and earlier. There is some dialogue, but there is more narrative – with the characters talking as they think of their experiences – perhaps they are talking to themselves, perhaps they are addressing the audience. The effect of this is that the story, although told in a very well structured fashion, requires hard thinking with regard to the staging. The very short scenes rapidly change, and toward the end, you are actually in Uganda on the raid itself.

Of course this was a reading. Normally, when I attend a reading, I find it easy to imagine how the play would (or could) look in a fully staged production. Here, I had a harder time (and in fact, at times the monologues seemed to drag and repeat themselves a bit), so in the talk back, I asked the director whether his staging has been done only with sound and light, or whether there are more elaborate sets and, if so, how is it accomplished. He responded that the play has an original musical score, and many sound and light effects. Also, that there is more physicality, especially during the raid, when Netanyahu is hit, and the rescue flawlessly continued. This made perfect sense to me. And I can imagine how it would improve the experience of seeing it.

A lot of the post-show discussion revolved around Yoni Netanyahu as hero, both as an exceptional individual (this was seconded by at least one audience member who knew him well), and as an example of an Israeli partisan, with the toughness that is required. On the other hand, some of the Netanyahu quotes from his letters, show that, even at the young age of 30, he was getting tired of fighting, tired of the continuous tension, wishing for someone else. This so much describes the Israel of today, making it even easier for contemporary Israelis to identify with what was going on in Netanyahu’s mind, and to accept him as an authentic hero (every nation, particularly those under continual siege) certainly need to have their heroes. And the ‘hero’, in classical terms, must meet his destiny or fate – and this is certainly what faced Yoni Netanyahu in Entebbe.

This play has not been performed very much to date. Because it is both educational and thought provoking, I would hope that it could be produced more often. I did see (on Wikipedia, of course) that there was a scheduled run of the play in Massachusetts, but it was canceled after controversy arose because the play was to be partnered with “My Name is Rachael Corrie”, another play based on the letters of the central character, in this case the young American woman who went to the Gaza Strip to support its residents at a time when they were under siege from Israel. If the Wikipedia article is correct, it is too bad. I saw “Rachael Corrie” a few years ago at the summer American Theater Festival in Shepardstown WV. It is also a wonderful play, and together the two would help tell a nicely rounded story of two young idealists, very different to be sure, but both of whom lost their lives in doing, reluctantly, what they both felt was necessary.

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