The room is cold and brutal. The buckets, the knives, the wooden block, the floor-to-ceiling tile all suggest we're in a butcher's shop, but this feels somehow more sinister, dangerous. It feels like the sort of room where very bad things happen. It is just the effect Anthony Black was hoping for.
Black is director of Neptune's current Studio production, Masked, by Israeli playwright Ilan Hatsor. Written in 1990 during the first intifada, it is an age-old story of family conflict told from the perspective of three Palestinian brothers living in the West Bank: three characters representing three positions along the spectrum of opinion about, and resistance to, the Israeli occupation.
All 80 minutes of it are played out in this one small, scary room.
Masked caused something of a sensation when it first opened, generating huge interest and earning the first-time playwright, then only 18 years old, the top prize at Israel's Acco Fringe Festival. In the almost two decades since, it has been performed in more than 100 countries. As Black tells it, its politics are as relevant today as in 1990. But that's not the point.
"I hate to be disparaging towards people who raise misappropriation of voice questions, but I feel the conflict is handled really well. This is really a universal story---it just happens to be set against the backdrop of the intifada."
Past productions of the play have drawn mumbles of "what's the point?" for how well balanced it is. Characters are written with such great sympathy, some critics suggest it lacks dramatic tension. "I'm not worried about producing something that's ethnically cliched," says Black. "I'm more worried about mobster cliches. I keep having to remind myself that these guys are brothers."
(A request to sit in on a rehearsal was denied. By the time Masked opened this past Tuesday evening, it had had, by any measure, a short rehearsal time---two-and-a-half weeks. With the request coming a week before opening night, Black was concerned a journalist would make the actors feel they had to perform before they were ready.)
The production marks Black's third turn in the director's chair for Neptune. Normally found at the helm of local independent theatre company 2B (the last play directed by Black in the Studio was one he had written, and was produced by 2B), Black didn't hesitate when new Neptune artistic director George Pothitos came calling.
"It's a great directing challenge," he says. "Masked doesn't permit a lot of technical frou-fa. It's about the characters, and keeping the attention on them through the action in this room. It's about managing a visual composition and rhythm, and making sure the actors are really connected. I guess you could say it's been a long scene-form study."
Black admits it's also been a steep learning curve when it comes to understanding the history of the region, and how to address it.
"We've had a lot of help from Dr. Amal Ghazal, who teaches Middle East history at Dalhousie. We keep a research table, and a wall on which to write notes or questions in the rehearsal room. We've been sprinting through the learning process, and I think we've been pretty good at getting it up and in reasonable shape. Now it's about helping these guys to really---I mean I know it sounds kind of oodgy-poodgy---but to deepen, to expose their souls."
"These guys" are actors Theo Pitsavis, Ali Momen and Karan Oberoi---of Greek, Persian and East Indian descents. "One of our biggest challenges," says Black, "has been pronunciation." As to how Masked will be received by Halifax audiences, Black has "no idea how this will play out. There's certainly a desire from Neptune and from us to engage with the Middle Eastern communities in Halifax, and to get them into the theatre."
However it plays out, Masked, Black insists, is simpler than the conflict in the Middle East. At its core, this great actor's play is a modern take on that ancient theme we all, regardless of our background, understand: conflict between brothers.