NEW YORK — Five years have passed since Israelis breathed a collective sigh of relief while watching the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in 2006 and held in captivity for five years.
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Shalit has kept out of the spotlight since his release, except for one, lengthy interview about his captivity. The Israeli media has mostly left him alone; reports that Shalit had a girlfriend were condemned as an invasion of privacy. To this day, his time in Gaza remains shrouded in mystery.
This week, a play at the International Fringe Festival in New York offers American audiences a glimpse into Shalit’s time in the hands of Hamas, and an exploration of his struggle to survive.
“From the Deep” takes place in a mysterious white room where Gilad Shalit, or Ilan, as he is called in the play, an Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas and held in Gaza, meets Andrew, an American student from Boston University, who has been kidnapped by a psychopath. It soon becomes apparent that the room is a supernatural limbo, where people who have been kidnapped can occasionally go to escape the brutal reality, while physically their bodies remain in captivity.
Occasionally, the clocks on the wall buzz ominously and the occupants of the room exit the stage to return to captivity. For Ilan, it usually means that his captors want to record a video to be sent to Israel or to question him. One time, he returns to the room beaten up.
The two men help each other pass the time with games of cards and ping-pong. Ilan, who has already spent years in captivity, takes on a mentoring role, guiding Andrew with tips and advice on staying sane. He urges him to stay active, record his memories, and even teaches him some Hebrew.
The play is based on Gilad Shalit’s story, as it states in the program, and the poster features a picture of Shalit. Ilan wants to be a sports commentator, just like Shalit, the circumstances of his kidnapping are the same, and his family is waging an unprecedented campaign on his behalf around the world.
The playwright, Cassie M. Seinuk, a Jewish American from Boston, says that she wrote the play after seeing the involvement of many Americans in the campaign for his release. She is also a relative of Ehud Goldwasser, an Israeli soldier whose abduction by Hezbollah in July 2006 – along with Eldad Regev – sparked the 2006 Lebanon War.
“I felt a personal connection to what was happening to the Israeli POWs”, she explains.
The difference between Ilan and Shalit would be obvious to an Israeli audience. Ilan is more confident and dominant than the Shalit we know from the media. There is a masculine swagger to Ilan’s body language that is reminiscent of the macho-Israeli soldier that often appears in Israeli films or television. At one point, Ilan even casually brags about his sexual past. “Yeah, I fuck around, but I don’t have a girlfriend”, he says, during a conversation between the two about women.
Charles Linshaw, the actor who plays Ilan, has a much more gentle and contemplative presence off-stage than his on stage persona. The differences between Ilan and Shalit are a result of a conscious decision to draw a line between the character and the real Gilad Shalit, he explains.
“When we did the first reading, Cassi M. Seinuk showed us videos of Gilad Shalit, but from the very beginning we agreed that It was important to develop Ilan as someone who was in many ways very different,” Linshaw says. “The intention was to be respectful to Gilad and his story and not to exploit his suffering.”
To prepare for the play, Linshaw, who is Jewish but not Israeli, drew on his childhood Israeli friends, his brief visit to Israel, and his time studying Hebrew at Brandeis University. “It was very important to me not to do an imitation of him, so I stopped watching videos of Shalit,” he says about the body language of his character. Knowing that nothing could resemble actual captivity, Linshaw nonetheless tried to leave his house as little as possible, limiting contact with other people, and immersing himself in a claustrophobic atmosphere in preparation for the play.
Before the New York International Fringe Festival, the play was shown to a predominantly non-Jewish audience at the Boston Center for the Arts in 2015. Seinuk believes that even those unfamiliar with Shalit’s story can emphasize with the human experience of being held by kidnappers, though Americans may be more familiar with the story of Andrew, the Boston University student who is mentored by Ilan on how to survive in captivity.
Andrew’s story is also inspired by real events: the disappearance of several young men, many of them students, in Boston in recent years.
In the play, both Ilan and Andrew ponder whether there is a difference in knowing that you were kidnapped for political reasons, or that you simply fell victim to a random crime. “When I was watching Shalit’s release, there were all these people disappearing at University of Boston and around the city. And I thought to myself, in what world could Gilad help save these people, who are in similar yet very different circumstances?” says Seinuk.
The creators of the play hope to bring it to Israel. Asked whether he thinks Shalit or his family might see the play, or what their opinion of the project might be, Linshaw pauses for a few minutes, searching for the rights words.
“I was drawn to this play because reading it hurt me, and theater provides people with the opportunity to experience something deep and profound, but It also has the power to hurt”, he says finally. “If they came to the play, I would not want to hurt them. I hope they would see how much feeling there is in our hearts for them and other people in the world who suffer beyond imagination.”
“From the Deep” will be performed On Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday at the New York International Fringe Festival.