Wherefore Art Thou Palestinian?

"Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.. . "

Fair Verona? Let's face it: Jerusalem is a far more suitable setting for "Romeo and Juliet,"Shakespeare's tragedy of passion and blood feud. And who better to play the Montagues and Capulets than Arabs and Jews? A joint production in Jerusalem is doing just that: it opens this week, with a Palestinian playing Romeo and an Israeli Jew as Juliet. "Shakespeare wrote this play about Jerusalem," says Eran Baniel, the Jewish half of an Arab-Israeli directing team. "Verona was a computer mistake."

Staging the play with Arab and Jewish actors seemed, at first, a star-crossed endeavor. No sooner had rehearsals begun in February than Baruch Goldstein gunned down 29 Muslim worshipers in nearby Hebron. Palestinian actors boycotted the project for several days, raising doubts about whether it would continue. Then Arab extremists killed 13 Israelis in two suicide bomb attacks. "The atmosphere at times was very, very tense," recalls Orna Katz, the Israeli who plays Juliet.

Logistics were a nightmare. Palestinian actors from the occupied West Bank, banned by Israel from entering Jerusalem, sometimes had to sneak past military checkpoints to attend rehearsals. Some sessions were held at an Arab theater in East Jerusalem, part of the territory captured by Israel in the 1967 war. But after the Hebron massacre-and threats of revenge-Jewish cast members were afraid to go there. Finding an appropriate site for the actual production was an even bigger problem. The favored location was inside the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem's walled Old City. But the Armenian Patriarchate balked; now the play will be staged in a warehouse in West Jerusalem.

At least nobody will have trouble telling the Montagues from the Capulets: one family speaks Arabic, the other Hebrew. (English subtitles will be projected above the stage.) Some characters-such as the Prince of Verona, a kind of arbiter-use both Arabic and Hebrew, depending upon the circumstances. Delicate decisions on usage were made line by line. "We were negotiating all the time," says Fouad Awad, the Palestinian director.

The hope, of course, is that a successful production of "Romeo and Juliet" will be the seed of something larger. "As artists, we need the courage to be out in front, to show people what is good and bad," says Awad. But in a land where some opinions were formed thousands of years ago, erasing ancient grudges is a tall order. Even liberal-minded members of the audience, accustomed to the daily bloodshed between Arab and Jew, may flinch when knives are drawn onstage. Others may feel threatened by a Palestinian kiss or a Jewish caress. The banishment of Romeo will resonate deeply for Palestinians who have seen friends or relatives deported by Israel. Not everyone will interpret the play as intended: an anonymous caller recently threatened Baniel, the Jewish director, saying his fife was in danger because the play was "encouraging intermarriage between Jews and Muslims."

Getting the right message across will be even harder if Arabs from the West Bank cannot attend the play. The producers offered tickets at a quarter of the price Israelis pay, but that won't help if the Palestinians can't get past Israeli military checkpoints. Baniel is now lobbying his government to make exceptions. But Palestinian colleagues worry that such appeals could backfire: anything Israel blesses becomes a curse in Arab eyes. That's the kind of intractable conflict that leads one character in the play to pronounce: "A plague on both your houses."