‘In dreams,” the title of Delmore Schwartz’s classic short story goes, “begin responsibilities.” The protagonist of Misha Shulman’s surrealistic new play, “Deathscape,” would certainly agree. The playwright’s stand-in, Me (Matthew Cabbil), undertakes a mission to find the Drug Man, who is in possession of a narcotic that brings the user in touch with everything that he is in denial of. Along the way, Me (also called The Dreamer) meets a host of luminaries, from Sigmund Freud to Rosa Parks, played by puppets and projections, who give him a series of new lenses on reality. Directed by Shulman, “Deathscape” is currently running at the Theater for the New City in the East Village.
The playwright was born and raised in Jerusalem. After serving at the Israeli army base in Lebanon in the late 1990s, he came to New York and began studying theater at Hunter College. His first plays, which included “Desert Sunrise” and “The Fist,” dealt with the Arab-Israeli conflict from a left-wing perspective. In addition to subsequent Off-Off-Broadway plays, including “The Fake History of George the Last,” he has written works for performance in synagogues, including “A Sephardic Masquerade” and “In the Stomach of a Whale.”
“Deathscape” grew out of a residency that Shulman did at Crow’s Theater in Toronto, as well as a trip to India, where he experienced traditional Indian and Tibetan drama, including Indonesian-style shadow puppetry. As Shulman coped with a number of life changes, including the birth of his first child, he used Jungian archetypes to string his own vivid dreams together into a play. Exemplifying the Talmudic dictum that dreams are one-sixtieth of prophecies, “Deathscape” draws much of its emotional texture from the biblical character of Jacob, particularly Jacob’s dream of wrestling with the angel, which takes place just before his reunion with his estranged brother, Esau.
“Me is a kind of Everyman,” Shulman told The Jewish Week. “He encounters symbolic characters who, as often happens in dreams, act in unexpected ways. Relaxing some of their direct iconic nature allows us to develop a new attitude both toward them and toward ourselves.”
Thus, for example, Osama bin Laden, who is represented simply by a speaking beard, sings the Hebrew hymn “Oseh Shalom”; Marilyn Monroe, who is symbolized by a glimmering, floating red dress, quotes from the Hell-obsessed priest in James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”
The title “Deathscape,” the playwright noted, refers to the “death and rebirth that is part of the process of change. A part of you has to die in order to make room for the next stage of yourself.” Because he spent his own childhood in Israel, Shulman said, he “romanticized” what life in Israel was like, and he had to “kill that side of me” in order to remain in America.
The dreamer in the play, Shulman explained, “is wrestling with his demons, which he must acknowledge and accept in order to recreate himself anew.”
“Deathscape” runs through Dec. 4 at the Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. at 10th St. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets, $15, call SmartTix at (212) 868-4444 or visit www.smarttix.com.