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LA Theater Review

Desert Sunrise

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In the desert of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Ismail (Dominic Rains), a Palestinian shepherd, is waiting to meet his girlfriend, Layla (Miriam Isa). But before she arrives, an Israeli soldier appears. He is Tsahi (Oren Dayan), who came here to meet his longtime lady love, but she summarily dumped him, and now he's lost in the desert. After initial hostility and sparring, Ismail and Tsahi begin to develop a wary friendship. Ismail is a deeply serious man, while Tsahi is a bit of a goofball, irreverent and full of jokes. Ismail shares his tea and a couple of joints with Tsahi. They talk, play the drums, and sing, and Tsahi decides he must teach Ismail to dance. Up to this point, the play seems like an amiably offbeat buddy comedy, but one knows instinctively that the act will end with Layla's arrival, and events will turn dark.

Layla is a fanatical Palestinian feminist, panting for revenge against the Jews who have oppressed her people. When she sees the two men dancing, she thinks Ismail is being attacked, and she snatches up Tsahi's rifle. Then she becomes suspicious as to why Ismail was "hugging" an Israeli, and she accuses him of collaborating with the enemy. Despite the underlying hostility, they make an uneasy peace. Layla dances for them, and Tsahi tells them about his sister, who was murdered by Palestinians; there has been much killing on both sides. As human individuals, they have much in common, and friendship seems almost possible, till Layla's ferocious militancy brings disastrous consequences.

Writer and former Israeli soldier Misha Shulman creates intriguing characters, and there's a rich vein of comedy in the earlier scenes, playing off Ismail's earnest sobriety against Tsahi's wacky charm. But by emphasizing Layla's single-minded hatred, Shulman pushes the piece toward melodrama. Perhaps this is what fanaticism does, but in theatrical terms it tends to reduce her to a symbol. The actors provide finely etched performances, and director Ellen Shipley handles the material with sensitivity on the elaborate exterior set by Elephant Stage Works Designs.

Presented by Desert Sunrise LLC at the Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, Hollywood. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Jul. 11-Aug. 23. (323) 960-7784. www.plays411.com/desertsunrise.

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