Having an actor play Hare adds a layer of artifice to the first-person work, but it isn’t damning. Epstein is a more brooding, less boyish entity than Hare, who was 50 when he made his trip. The actor’s performance of Via Dolorosa evokes the work of Anna Deavere Smith, in that he performs the characters he meets, assuming an elegance of speech and gesture for the Palestinian politician Halder Abdel Sharif or an almost strident passion for Israeli attorney Shulamit Aloni, who served in the Knesset under Itzhak Rabin. Indeed, Via Dolorosa makes it clear that the schisms on both Jewish and Palestinian sides of the divide are almost as deep as the one in the middle.
For a creator of theatrical fictions, Hare proves a riveting reporter, though not one bent on answers. He incorporates into his account his own “unhappy cocktail” of “ignorance and dismay” as he endeavors to understand Israeli settlers in Gaza, Old Testament fundamentalists anchored to their “disputed place” despite the fact that their Arab neighbors want to kill them. He articulates his surprise at the economic gulf between Israelis and Palestinians; the passage into Gaza, he says, is like crossing from California into Bangladesh.
Initially an observer, Hare, gradually comes to understand the need to own not just one’s beliefs but also the stones on which they were forged. Acknowledging that Christianity finishes a “sporting third” in the religious sweepstakes of the region, he nonetheless walks the Via Dolorosa, past postcard shops and through alleys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, kneeling to kiss what may or may not be the exact spot on which Christ was crucified. “Does literal truth matter?” he wonders. “Aren’t we kissing an idea?” Emerging to be confronted by dueling holy sites the Jewish Temple Mount and Muslim Haram al-Sharif, he isn’t so sure. “Oh I see,” he epiphanizes, “how provoking it is to own beauty.” Returning home, he is haunted by the mantra “Stones or ideas? Stones or ideas?” You will be too.
Who knew Cyrano de Bergerac wanted to enroll in an American high school and join the chorus? But that’s what 30-year-old composer/lyricist/librettist Barry Wyner has in mind for him in Calvin Berger (at Gloucester Stage Company through September 17), which takes the swashbuckling hero of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 tale of a Gascon swordsman whose nose gets in the way of romantic fulfillment and turns him into a smart but self-doubting student at Rostand High, where matriculation itself is described in the opening number as a “Security Meltdown.” Even the lovely Rosanna, Calvin’s next-door neighbor and crush, frets about being dull, and the whole cast (of four) anguishes over “my eyes, my thighs, my butt, my gut.” Although the conversational pop score of the new musical breaks into outright song but once (on Rosanna’s “More Than Meets the Eye”), the concept is engaging, the book witty, and the world-premiere production sporting. It sounded like a terrible idea that turns out to be terrific, even though Wyner’s lyrics ricochet between droll and drivel. And how Rostand managed to move the plot in the absence of cellphones is a mystery.
CALVIN BERGER: What sounded like a terrible idea turns out to be terrific.
While still a college student, Peabody native Wyner musicalized GSC artistic director Israel Horovitz’s one-act It’s Called the Sugar Plum, thus forging a connection that culminates in the debut of Calvin Berger — which won the 2005-’06 Jerry Bock Award for Outstanding Achievement in Musical Theatre — in Gloucester. Director Stephen Terrell glues no gigantic proboscis on Calvin; as Calvin’s parents tell him, he’s blown his nose way out of proportion. But when handsome new student Matt shows up and rings the chime of Rosanna, wrestling-team compatriot Calvin agrees to help the linguistically retarded pretty boy woo. Not that Calvin is the florid ghostwriter of Rostand’s dreaming; the poems and notes he writes for Matt barely hit Hallmark quality. But for the word-challenged, romantically petrified Matt, whose idea of verse is “Your booty is a beauty,” they do the trick. Wyner complicates the roundelay by recasting Cyrano’s confidant Le Bret as Calvin’s clever best friend, Bret, who has a crush on the geek with the gift for words.