Solana Beach CA---How many times have you wished you could be ‘a fly on the wall’ just to hear a conversation between two adversaries, lovers, friends, polar opposites? Wonder no more. In Lionel Goldstein’s “Mandate Memories” now in a world premiere production at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach through May 4th, you will have ample time meet Jane Sterling and Gustav Frolich revealing stories about themselves to each other that they have never shared with anyone. The irony is that they come from opposite ends of the earth. Their life’s experiences are as different as day is from night and this meeting planned by Gustav, who now lives in Israel, will be as jarring to Jane as it was to those of us hearing it for the first time. It's the summer of 2009 and Jane is in her garden gathering flowers.
Goldstein’s play was a staged reading as part of the 17th Annual Lipinsky Family San Diego Arts Festival. At the time artistic director David Ellenstein announced that the then audience was the first ever to see this play. Then it was definitely a work in progress.
Now three or so years later with a more expanded and informative look and feel, Ellenstein is directing Goldstein’s World Premiere production of “Mandate Memories’ in what the playwright referred to at the reading ‘as a sort of rebuttal to the anti Semitism so rampant in the London Press, the BBC in general and to British playwright Caryl Churchill in particular.
But “Mandate Memories” is not just about anti-Semitism. While one cannot ignore the Holocaust (although some might try), or the tirades of Ahmadinejad and his ilk, or the reporting from the BBC, or Churchill’s “Seven Jewish Children” there is more at stake here than first meets the eye. If it were that simple or complicated as the case may be we would be having an entirely different conversation.
No. ‘Memories’ goes way back to the beginning and builds. In fact get out your history books and brush up on The British Mandate or the Mandate for Palestine (1935) or The Peel Commission, The League of Nations (1923) and The White Paper of 1939 for starters and for a better understanding of some of the context. You will be introduced to many ideas in kind, but “Mandate Memories” is more about well…the collective memories of Frolich and Sterling, how the impact of them affected the unraveling of this story and what brought them to this juncture in their lives.
Goldstein’s two person play brings Gustav Frolich (Apollo Dukakis), an eighty something year old Bergen-Belsen survivor who fought in the Israeli War of Independence ’47-’48 and is now in Israeli Intelligence (Research and Development...his words), together with Jane Sterling (Rosina Reynolds) a sixty something year old widow, who lost her biological father during Israel’s war of Independence. She was but a tot. Now years later she finds pleasure in her well cared for garden and her grandchildren. Her reverie is about to be turned upside down.
When Frolich arrives at Sterling’s peaceful countryside home the opening dance number of ‘getting to know you, getting to know all about you’ gets off to a rocky start as Frolich begins snooping around the beautifully detailed Sterling sitting room (Marty Burnett has done it again). It’s somewhat like being at your first Cotillion where neither partner knows who will lead or how to, for that matter.
At first it’s clumsy and awkward but after all the niceties, when Frolich kind of gets around to giving Sterling a clue as to why he’s come (he has a letter from her deceased father) they have already exchanged some sharp opinions about the Palestinian ‘situation’.
FROLICH (“I wonder if your average listener, British Guardian-reader BBC listener Israel-basher that you mentioned - I wonder if any of them ever think to ask themselves why the Palestinians didn’t establish their own state on the West Bank on any given day between nineteen-forty-eight and nineteen-sixty-seven in which case they would now be entirely free and unrestricted and living alongside us in peaceful co-existence.
JANE: I’m not entirely uninformed and yet - I’m not sure I know why.
FROLICH: Well, but being British, you should know why. It is part of your history.
JANE: British history? I don’t think so.”)
And so it went over the course of an afternoon where both Sterling and Frolich go back and forth about family, politics, realities and oft times he surprising her with details of her life that she thought no one knew about. Gradually, deliberately and steadfastly (sometimes filled with agonizing feelings about being a survivor/life and death/right and wrong/, his lead up to his reason for the visit hits like a bombshell taking everyone by surprise.
Under artistic director David Ellenstein’s careful guidance and with Goldstein’s input and take no prisoners dialogue, “Mandate Memories” had a slow beginning that in some ways had this reviewer wanting him to get to the point already. However as the story unfolded it was obvious that while the conflict in Israel is still in a state of flux with more opinions than pundits, the relationship between these two antagonists had to play out to its conclusions slowly, cautiously and with a deep understanding that along the way a friendship was being developed.
It takes a special kind of actor to be fully engaged over a period of two hours, enough so that the lack of interest is not the sacrificial lamb. Goldstein’s two-person play has two such actors in Ms. Reynolds and Mr. Dukakis. On opening night both were at the top of their game. Both, armed with terrific dialogue, delivered with conviction, humor and pinpoint accuracy.
Dukakis’ lumbering presence and intense sense of his horrid past is at odds with the all knowing, slight of build British actor whose coldness, wit and self assuredness of Reynolds’ character comes across as a direct challenge to the already beleaguered Frolich. (“One of the disadvantages of losing one’s entire family in the gas chamber, Mrs. Sterling is that it leaves the survivor with no inner compass”)
But that’s not the half of it. The two create an atmosphere so real that this reviewer, and for that matter my daughter who is visiting from Israel, felt that we are flies on the walls of Sterling’s living room bearing witness to a conversation happening in private, that under other circumstances might well never have been discussed. Facial expressions, body language combined with an intense message demanded our attention while barely making a sound so as no one might suspect that we were there.
“Mandate Memories” is a story that must be told, heard and discussed. North Coast Repertory Theatre has done Goldstein’s work proud. Technical efforts with Marty Burnett’s exquisitely detailed garden and living room, Matt Novotny’s distinctive lighting design and Melanie Chen’s sound design (I thought I heard a dog out there somewhere) all contribute to making this conversation a must see, must hear.
This summer Goldstein plans to take the play to Tel Aviv under the title of ‘The Last Mission”.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through May 4th
Organization: North Coast Repertory Theatre
Production Type: Drama
Where: 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach
Ticket Prices: $44.00-$48.00