Thinking man's theater

A fine new one-man show, and an even finer actor.

WHEN PLAYWRIGHT David Hare stepped onto the stage of the Royal Court two years ago to perform his one-man show Via Dolorosa, it was an unlikely theatrical event. At the age of 51, it was his professional performing debut; in fact, as he admits in the first few minutes of this piece about his travels in Israel and Palestine, it was the first acting he'd done since he was a teenager. "Acting" is perhaps a misnomer, as Hare's autobiographical account was told in his own persona, although he also gave voice to many of the people that he met on his journey, including theater artists, settlers in the occupied territories, and politicians on both sides of this tragic and seemingly insurmountable conflict.

Via Dolorosa

A Contemporary Theater, ends August 6

Hare himself described the evening as in some ways "anti-theater," more of a lecture or a travelogue presented in the context of a dramatic performance. But the moment that actor David Pichette walks onto the stage of the show's West Coast premiere, now being staged at ACT under the direction of Kurt Beattie, it's clear that this is going to be a dramatic performance, because the man standing before us is not the playwright but one of the most gifted actors that Seattle has the pleasure to call its own.

Pichette's been seen a lot on local stages in the last few years, but perhaps because he's so intensely reliable at making a vast impression in a little space, he's often given either small roles (such as his hilarious turn as the hotel detective Harold in the otherwise dreadful Communicating Doors last year) or asked to supply a half-dozen supporting characters in shows with small casts, as he did over at the Empty Space's Hanging Lord Haw-Haw a few months back. His astonishingly protean talents have in some odd way pigeonholed him; directors and audiences love to watch how deftly he can sketch an entire human being with a slight alteration of voice, expression, or gait. As a result, his talent seems oddly hoarded, as if producers are worried that too much Pichette all at once would blind us.

INSTEAD, IT'S HARD to imagine a happier combination of actor and subject matter. Via Dolorosa (the title refers to the road in Jerusalem with the 14 stations of the cross) is an attempt by an immensely observant, and surprisingly impartial, writer who professes himself to be without faith to understand a political situation that's entirely infused with matters of faith. Hare's cachet as a successful playwright gives him astonishing access to many of the major players in the region, including Benni Begin (son of Menachem) and the Palestinian leader Haider Abdel Shafi. But he gets reactions that are just as profound and insightful from a variety of ordinary people who live with the consequences of the policy-makers.

It's easy to believe that Pichette as Hare is the sort of performer that Hare wishes he could be. (Hare's diary of performing the show, Acting Up, often reads as a 276-page catalog of the varieties of stage fright.) He presents us with a narrator who is urbane, witty, and courageously outspoken about his own reactions to the politics and people. On his way to visit the Settlements, he looks out at the land and admits he is horrified by the momentary thought that "the Jews do not belong in this part of the world." At the same time, his meetings with the Palestinians reveal a people so chronically prey to in-fighting and corruption that their cause seems hopeless.

Hare presents no real answers to the situation, but through Pichette, we are able to see not just the prejudices and blindness of so many of the people he meets, but the passionate striving for some sort of answer that characterizes the best of them. The intellectual energy of this actor is translated instantaneously and effortlessly into his performance. Watching him metamorphose into several settlers at a dinner party gives the material such a varied and fascinating tempo and range that the Bullitt stage seems suddenly crowded with voices. Etta Lilienthal's spare and affecting set of red earth and two chairs placed like stools in a boxing ring is ideally suited to the play's combative themes. This is the sort of theater that's an all too rare occurrence on a Seattle stageā€”one that entertains, yes, but also educates and provokes thought on a deep level.

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