The moment you see the lecture hall setting and a giant Star of David looming in the background, you know that Plan-B Theatre Company’s Masada is not a show that allows worries and cares to disappear. In fact, by the time Masada is over, you feel as if you’ve been verbally assaulted in a Zionism 101 crash course.
The people of Plan-B have done it again with Masada, challenging the usual norms of Salt Lake theater by bringing a thought-provoking production to light. But unlike other Plan-B productions that teem with theatricality, Masada relies almost entirely on its argumentative dialogue to incite thinking responses from the audience.
Set in the form of a lecture, Masada consists entirely of a female Israeli historian presenting her views on Jewish history from the Old Testament to today. Poised and confident, she expounds her beliefs to ultimately justify the creation of Israel and the divine right that Jews have to the land.
It seems that Masada playwright Arthur Milner and Plan-B are intentionally stirring up the ingredients for controversy and cries of anti-Semitism. But at the same time, Masada doesn’t just critique the forces involved in the creation of Israel, but all nations and groups that come into power and ultimately write history as the winners.
With the choice of Jews and Israel, Milner uses a 20th century example of how a group of people have endured extreme victimization to later become tenacious victors in capturing land for an Israeli homeland. But Milner also argues that all groups who were once persecuted, can also have the capacity to persecute others.
Although the historian’s arguments, and the ideas in Masada, are well-researched and intelligent, Milner’s sense of drama seems to concern itself more with conflicts of ideas than emotions.
Even though we learn a little about the historian through her anecdotes about her father, the majority of the time she is just a spouting theory and history machine instead of a character to care about. But perhaps that was what Milner was aiming for—a person so blinded by his or her moral correctness that it becomes impossible to see any other side.
As the historian who is the center of attention for the entire performance, Gayle Staffanson is very believable in her arguments. Although her Israeli accent seems dubious and faded at times, she commands the stage and virtually erases any tell-tale signs of “acting the part.”
Both Staffanson and director Tobin Atkinson clearly feel the material is important, and it shows in Plan-B’s intelligent rendering of Masada. For those who are stimulated by ideological arguments and historical discussion, Masada clearly fits the bill. But for those who want their drama from emotional conflict and human connection, Masada can feel as arid and sweltering as an Israeli desert landscape.
Plan-B Theatre Company’s Masada plays until March 6 at the New Hope Center, 1102 W. 400 North. Call 487-8291 to reserve tickets.