Drama explores Mideast conflict through cooking

Among the first rules of acting: Remember your lines and speak clearly.

It might be tough for actors to follow the latter in the play “The Arab-Israeli Cookbook.” For much of the two-hour drama, they’re busy cooking, eating and drinking on stage.

The play, directed by Clive Chafer, makes its Northern California premiere in a new production from TheaterFIRST. It is currently in an Oakland run and will open in San Francisco at Traveling Jewish Theater on Dec. 1.

On-stage meal prep isn’t the only unusual aspect to “The Arab-Israeli Cookbook.” For one, there is an actual cookbook filled with recipes from the region, created as a companion project for the play and on sale in the theater lobby.

More importantly, playwright Robin Sloan fashioned his dialogue verbatim from interviews he conducted with Jews and Arabs living in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Eight actors take on multiple roles (42 in all) to bring to life all the complications, joys, sorrows — and recipes — of the Middle East.

One of those actors is Anne Hallinan, a Brandeis University graduate and veteran of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and Teatro Campesino. Among her characters, she portrays a New York-born Jewish woman who makes aliyah, and a Palestinian Christian woman living in East Jerusalem.

“It depicts their experience in their own words,” says Hallinan. “We portray real people, not someone constructed by a playwright. As such, there is something very compelling about hearing all the voices.”

“The Arab-Israeli Cookbook” premiered in 2004 in London. It received its U.S. premiere earlier this year at the MET Theater in Santa Monica.

Since every character is based on a real person, the cast members faced unusual challenges. “As an actor you want to create a back story for your characters,” says Hallinan. “It’s tricky here. There is a tension between creating a theatrically interesting character and not wanting to do a disservice to the real person.”

Hallinan says the play exposes “the terrible toll the conflict is having on everybody, the suffering on both sides. The play does not offer a solution but makes a compelling case for the necessity to find one.”

All that on-stage cooking is the playwright’s way of turning the conflict into a human story anyone can understand.

“Food is a universal concern,” says Hallinan. “Themes of universality and survival are pretty central to the issues involved. It’s the motif that ties the play together.”

In one scene she chows down on figs and hummus washed down with a shot of Campari. “One Christian Palestinian grandmother makes a stuffed zucchini dish,” she says of other scenes in the play. “A gay Israeli couple makes Thai beef with chili.”

And though with every performance the theater fills with the savory smells of Middle Eastern cooking, Hallinan says the cast members aren’t quite ready to open their own restaurant yet.

“Some cooked food gets used the next day,” she admits. “Let’s just say it’s not always in the best of shape.”

“The Arab-Israeli Cookbook” plays Nov. 10-20 at the Old Oakland Theatre, 461 Ninth St. (at Broadway), Oakland. Also 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Dec. 1-4, at Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida, S.F. Tickets: $10-$22. Information: (510) 436-5085.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.