Ulysses on Bottles is undoubtedly ambitious. It takes on the Isreali/Palestinian conflict, politics, power dynamics, and Russian literature and tries to tackle it all with five characters in about 75 minutes and a dozen scenes. There are thought-provoking moments and riveting ones, but other places where the play’s artistic and aspirational nature gets in the way of its grittier themes and message.
It seems almost impossible that the Mosaic Theater Company knew that their run of Ulysses on Bottles would line up with Donald Trump’s visit to the Middle East when they selected it as part of their Changing Middle East Festival. (Despite what you may have heard about geography from the President recently, Gaza is still in the Middle East.) But in a uniquely timely staging at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, the play by the late Israeli playwright Gilad Evron is running through June 11.
Ulysses on Bottles tells the story of a schoolteacher, known only by the nickname “Ulysses,” who has been imprisoned for trying to sail to Gaza on a raft made of water bottles. He wants to bring Russian literature to Gaza, because “there is no one who is not in need of Russian literature.” His lawyer Isakov is the anchor and straight man of the darkly comedic play. Isakov is balancing his obligations to Ulysses and his grim situation with the demands of his wife and law partner. Isakov is also continually sparring with a woman known as Seinfeld, whom the play notes describe simply as “an allegorical expression of the Israeli surveillance state.”
And therein lies the structural issue plaguing Ulysses on Bottles: a description of a character shouldn’t have to describe the role she plays in the larger theme of a play. That should be obvious to the audience through the show itself. It is certainly possible that something is lost in translation or in transportation – the play premiered in Israel to an audience with a much stronger context for its educational components. But the story still feels like it’s asking both too much and not enough of the audience.
Theater of this type is meant to challenge and engage, and there’s nothing wrong with asking people to think. But there seems to be a knowledge barrier to entry regarding Ulysses on Bottles. You don’t just need a specific contextual understanding of the crisis in Gaza, but a grasp on Russian literature and a knowledge of Thomas Mann’s short stories are also surprisingly important to a full understanding of the play.
But even if you don’t mind asking audiences to come in having done a specific kind of homework in preparation for the show, my greater frustration was with the one-dimensional nature of the characters. Ulysses is all noble martyr. Eden and Horesh, Isakov’s wife and law partner, are self-interested and crude. A short play doesn’t leave a lot of time for long arcs of character development, but it seems they could have been a bit more nuanced than what we get here.
None of those short-comings are the fault of the actors; this is certainly a strong cast. Michael Kevin Darnell in particular delivers a powerful performance as Ulysses. He is excellent both in soliloquy and when working with Matthew Boston as Isakov or, in probably the play’s best scene, Sarah Marshall as Seinfeld. I also appreciated the unique form and the way the action never stops as each scene runs into the next. And frankly, there’s something that feels accessible about a 75-minute play.
It’s awfully hard to overcome the unevenness of a show that asks you to dive in deep over your head in rough waters in one scene and then offers you a life vest and swim goggles to splash around in the kiddie pool in the next. But the show is well-staged and exceptionally well-acted, and the conversations Ulysses on Bottles is trying to spark are with having. Before you go, brush up on Russian lit.