The play opens in the south Hebron hills in the West Bank with Tsahi, an off-duty Israel Defense Forces soldier (Oren Dayan), pointing his gun at Ismail, a Palestinian shepherd (Dominic Rains). Having just broken up with his settler girlfriend, Tsahi is lost and seeking a way back to the main road. Ismail, waiting for his Muslim Palestinian girlfriend, Layla (Miriam Isa), is the only one who can help Tsahi find his way.
At first suspicious of one another, the foes gradually open up with both rhetoric and humor. Eventually, their shared love and distrust of women reveal their more human bond.
"A collision cracks open bias and fear so that they're left with no choice but to experience each other in a purer state -- stripped of their usual armor of politics, religion and even personal history," director Ellen Shipley said during a rehearsal break. Shipley is best known for her work as a songwriter, having written Belinda Carlisle's hit, "Heaven Is a Place on Earth," among others.
Seeking to take a break from songwriting to return to her theater roots, the Brooklyn-born director discovered the play through theater professor and director Michael Rutenberg, who taught both Shipley and Shulman at Hunter College.
"I cried when I read it. I felt so much," she said. "Everything opened up to me -- as a director, as a human being, as a Jew. I felt compelled that this is something I should do, and that I would have a perspective on it that's different from Misha's."
Shulman, 30, directed the 2005 New York run to critical acclaim. Born in Jerusalem to American parents, he has made his home in New York after completing IDF service and enjoyed his first professional success as a playwright with "The Fist," a play about an IDF "refusnik" (conscientious objector).
"Desert Sunrise" was inspired by his father's memoirs of expeditions to visit Palestinian cave dwellers in the Hebron hills with the peace activist group, Ta'ayush. Shulman followed his father's footsteps to get better acquainted with the region.
"I would have never written this play had the people of the south Hebron hills -- the Palestinian cave dwellers -- had they not refused to turn to violence," Shulman said in a phone interview.
Shipley has never been to Israel, but she spent time researching the conflict and Israeli and Palestinian culture.
"It's an interesting experience as an Israeli to write a play that's culturally specific -- about the Middle East, with music and dance, Hebrew and Arabic -- and hand it over to an American who's less familiar with the region, and to see how what I was doing could maybe be better translated to an American mentality," Shulman said.
Shipley chose to work with a cast of young, multiethnic actors -- younger than in the original production. "There's an element of innocence that allows them to open up to each other," Shipley said.
Dayan, 21, grew up in Tarzana to Israeli parents. He speaks fluent Hebrew, but spent time with his Israeli friends to perfect an Israeli accent. The play has given him more insight into the Palestinian side of the conflict. "I was obviously more biased to the Israeli side, only because I was less familiar with the other side. Through the process of working on this play and learning about the cave dwellers, it opened my eyes to a world where there is nobody who is really right."
Rains' Persian accent is real. The 26-year-old left Iran with his parents at a young age. He moved to Los Angeles from Texas several years ago to pursue an acting career. He took a break from his role on the soap opera, "General Hospital," as Dr. Leo Julian to "commit myself to something that didn't have to do with me, and more to something else."
Born to a Muslim family but not a practicing Muslim, he and Dayan are now good friends, spending time together offstage. "I haven't been around many Israelis," said Rains. "It's been a nice experience to be with these wonderful people."
The play has also become a tool of self-discovery for actress Isa, 25, born in Florida to a Cuban mother and Lebanese father in a household that taught "everything, from atheism to Christianity."
"Throughout my childhood I ran away from my Middle Eastern side," Isa said. "Then I got cast in this play, where I'm forced to immerse myself in the culture -- and it's the most amazing thing. Now, at 25, I have a pride for my Middle East side that I didn't have before."
To prepare for the role, she tried to assume the mind of a female Palestinian militant oppressed by tradition, society and political systems. Offstage she wore a hijab and attended mosque services. She specifically refrained from seeing "You Don't Mess With the Zohan" so she could stay true to her character. She has learned to see the angry, violence-prone Layla as "a human being who has her tragedy, her struggle, her ideals, her zeal -- that's what she died for. She now has a story."
This kind of deeper understanding is what Shipley hopes to draw from her audience.
"What interests me more is what happens to these three people -- it's much more fundamental, the need for connection, the need to be seen for who we are, to be accepted, forgiven, to be loved," Shipley said. "It asks the audience to suspend beliefs and old biases they may have walked in with."
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