How much free choice do we have, or are our lives pre-programmed by culture and history?
In Misha Shulman’s new play, “The Fake History of George the Last,” set a few hundred years in the future, a suburban Jewish boy named George Jr. (Jared Mezzocchi) learns from his father, George Sr. (Ben Jaeger-Thomas), that he is a 10th-generation clone, and that the Georges who have preceded him have lived out exactly the same life — a life marked, he will discover, by violence and despair. A chorus chants verses based on Ecclesiastes, to the effect that nothing ever changes; nothing is ever truly new. Avant-garde composer Kevin Farrell supplies the electronic music for the choral segments.
Shulman, who grew up in Israel as the son of North American-born parents, has written four plays on the Arab-Israeli conflict, beginning with his first play, “The Fist,” which is about an Israeli soldier who refuses to serve in his country’s army. He is best known for “Desert Sunrise,” a 2005 play about an encounter between an Israeli soldier and Palestinian shepherd that The New York Times called “elegant and affecting,” noting that it “elicits a tragicomic resonance.”
“George the Last,” directed by Meghan Finn, shows echoes of existentialist, absurdist playwrights like Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Samuel Beckett. It offers an allegorical take on the responsibility of the individual to make moral choices in a world that often seems devoid of meaning.
In a telephone interview, Shulman told The Jewish Week that he grew up “believing in the justness of the Jewish state,” given what he calls the “moral elevation that stems from Judaism.” As a “left-wing Israeli,” he was taught that Israel lost the “moral high ground” after the 1967 war, when the country began to occupy the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But when he joined the army in 1996, in a unit that served in Southern Lebanon, Shulman began to question Israel’s treatment of the Arabs in both the War of Independence and the Six-Day War.
“I’m not trying to point fingers,” the playwright insists. “When someone reveals the myth behind the reality, people get very defensive. I see my country falling over and over into cycles of violence, which are themselves caused by myths about the cycles of violence.” Such myths, he explained, have a “negative generative power.”
Nevertheless, Shulman suggests, the ultimate message of “George the Last” is an optimistic one. King Solomon, he pointed out, was the “smartest guy in history”, and he concluded that everything that people say is new has been there for centuries. “George the Last,” he said, is about the search for the “tiny loophole that lets us out of Ecclesiastical thinking.”
Shulman views the “mainstream” of society — in politics, entertainment or education — as an “overpowering wave.” The antidote, he said, is independent thinking. “Only when people step out of it and think for themselves, by ridding themselves of the indoctrination that they’ve received, can some kind of possibility open up.”
“The Fake History of George the Last” runs now through Feb. 7 at the Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. (at East 10th Street). Performances are Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. For tickets, $18, call OvationTix at (212) 254-1109 or visit www.ovationtix.com.