'In the Tunnel': Two Israelis and One Palestinian Stuck in an Existential Limbo

How depressing to discover that satire in Israel is timeless, as the Gesher Theater production of ‘In the Tunnel’ makes clear.

Idan Musari (left) and Mickey Leon star in 'In the Tunnel.'
Radi Rubinstein

This is a story about the power of images and staging. “In the Tunnel” (“Baminhara”), a play by Roee Chen, directed by Irad Rubinstein, was inspired by the film “No Man’s Land,” by Bosnian film director and screenwriter Danis Tanovic. In this play, the Gesher Theater – in perhaps an overly blatant contrast to its regular repertoire – places itself at the forefront of political activity in Israel 2017. We have “A Wonderful Country” (“Eretz Nehederet”) on Channel 2, “The Back of the Nation” (“Gav Hauma”) on Channel 10, and now, “In the Tunnel” on the Gesher stage.

If you think that we have no control over the arbitrary reality taking place around us, above our heads and beneath our feet, the Noga Theater, where “In the Tunnel” is being staged, is the place for you. Before you enter the hall, spectators are given the chance to influence the end of the play. Each receives one ballot and will be asked to place it in one of two boxes, thus deciding whether there is or isn’t a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s not freedom of expression, but the freedom to choose the world you want to see on stage.

It’s true that the spectator is forced to accept the majority decision (I voted that there is a light, but the majority decided there isn’t). After all, in an election you must accept the majority opinion, but until the polls open, you live under the illusion that you can influence reality, or in this case, its reflection on the stage.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the first to identify – before we learned that he had recorded himself buying and selling news coverage – the danger inherent in the tunnels being dug by Hamas from Gaza into Israeli territory. Playwright Roee Chen, director Irad Rubinstein, set designer Michael Kramenko, costume designer Oren Dar and lighting designer Avi Yona Bueno (Bambi) are the first in Israel to exploit the tunnel on stage as a powerful theatrical image for our lives, as well as the basis for a theatrical happening that is absurd, frightening, infuriating, depressing and (very) funny.

Chen and Rubinstein and their actors bring an IDF-Gaza version of this all-too-realistic image, which the audience hears a moment before the start of the play: “In life they taught us to believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel, but in this tunnel, if there’s light at the end – cock your gun.” At the same time, civilian slogans with an IDF flavor are being screened: “The theater is your home – take care of it.”

The main action of the play takes place in a tunnel, a cross section of which is revealed to the audience in the lower half of the stage. On one side, two figures pass through the tunnel in combat uniform, carrying weapons and speaking to each other in Arabic. They are being pursued enthusiastically by IDF soldiers and an officer who tries to restrain the pursuit. Shots are exchanged, the officer is wounded and one of the Hamas fighters is killed, and finally the chaos comes to an end. Meanwhile, in the tunnel, whose two openings have been sealed in bombings by both sides above the fighters’ heads, two Israelis and one Palestinian are stuck in an existential limbo, like a desert island or Sartre’s “No Exit.” Hell is other people, or the Other. Unfortunately, I can’t disclose details about the play or quote from it, and not only for fear of spoilers. The play deals with direct, blatant and brazen courage and with the most sensitive and explosive points of our lives here as human beings and political creatures.

Karin Saruya and Uri Yaniv in 'In the Tunnel.'
Radi Rubinstein

As insane as real life

In the tunnel, we see the lives of the characters develop. They are the reservist (Mickey Leon), who has to get home for his daughter’s bat mitzvah; the uptight, gung-ho regular army soldier (Idan Musari); and a Hamas member (Firas Nasser), who knows Hebrew well and corrects the Israelis’ pronunciation when they curse in Arabic. They find themselves engaging in a three-way, binational coexistence, eat each other’s food and get to know one another as human beings. In a way, this is a local version of the Christmas encounter between French and German soldiers in the trenches during World War I.

At the same time, in the upper part of the stage, separated from the tunnel by a strip of digital news flashes in red letters, an absurd situation is taking place. The presenter of a morning TV lifestyle program (Karin Saruya), who exercises, eats and applies makeup under the guidance of a polished South American athlete (Paulo E. Moura), has to broadcast a news flash about Israeli soldiers who are missing in a tunnel. Due to communication problems she finds herself becoming “the media,” which creates reality with words alone, and she interviews an arrogant “leading” Israeli who recites a page of messages and makes a mess of it. There is also a corrupt Palestinian leader and an inept UN mediator.

As a longtime theatergoer, I felt that playwright Chen and director Rubinstein (and all their excellent partners) are channeling the early satire of Hanoch Levin, “You, Me and the Next War” from 1968, at the start of the occupation. On the one hand, it’s wonderful to see artists from a later period reviving an Israeli satirical classic from the past so amazingly. On the other hand, it can drive you crazy to discover that in almost 50 years, nothing here has changed. Satire, an art that is dependent on its time, has become timeless. How depressing!

The creators of this play hold nothing sacred; they make fun of everyone. But if there is any difference, I would say that “In the Tunnel” laughs with the young people trapped in the tunnel, who are paying with their lives but are also capable of laughing at themselves, and laughs at all the others: politicians, the media, religion, ideology and the audience.

If I can ask anything of the spectators who intend to see “In the Tunnel,” it’s to try to come with an open mind. To vote before the start of the play, and then allow themselves to react to what’s happening onstage. There’s always a possibility that the audience will vote for a happy end. The one I saw ended badly, and I know of one that did end well, but I have no idea how such a happy end looks, and whether it’s more pleasing or more depressing than the bad one. Coming performances of “In the Tunnel” are scheduled this month. Whatever is happening in the world at the time you emerge from the theater, I’m afraid we’ll still be stuck in our metaphorical tunnel, without knowing whether the train is approaching or receding.

Incidentally, the tunnels are the same place through which – in the world of Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also our world as long as he’s our prime minister – the Palestinians are coming in droves to destroy us, and we’re always cocking our guns. Some people count the dead and others count the votes. And also incidentally, satire is a weapon; but for the censors’ information, it is clearly a defensive weapon of the weaker side.

The next performances of “In the Tunnel” are on February 20 and 21 at 20.30 at Heichal Hatarbut, Yavne (corner of Du’ani and Jabotinsky streets). Tickets: (08) 932-0000