09 November 2012

Acre (Acco) Festival, Israel

by Helen Kaye

[The Acco Festival of Alternative Israeli Theatre, the annual Israeli fringe festival, took place this year between 1 and 4 October 2012.  This year was the 33rd anniversary of the Acco Festival, which began in 1980 in one of the Knights’ Halls in the Old City in the town of Acco (also called Acre or Akko), one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on earth.  The site dates back to biblical times, but the current city, with a population of around 47,000, is based on a medieval town.  The annual four-day festival features a competition for original plays premiering at the Festival, along with offerings of local and foreign theater troupes, street theater and open-air performances, a concert stage, artisans' displays, workshops, projects, and a conference.  Most of the Festival offerings are from outside the mainstream of the performing arts and when Helen wrote me about seeing the festival, she said “many of [the] plays had a distinctly apocalyptic frisson.” 

[As I’ve noted before, Helen writes short reviews for the Jerusalem Post (I amended my 20 October report on Harper Regan with Helen’s JP review of the Tel Aviv production of the play) and her coverage of the Acco Festival below appeared in the paper starting on 11 October.  (The dates on each capsule review below are the dates on which Helen wrote her notices, not their date of publication.)]

We're Building a Port Here
Kigler: His Life and Death
Poisoned Hyssop
Acre Festival 2/10/12

“One day we won't need so many words to be Jews,” says one of the three high-octane actors in the very political We're Building a Port Here, the idea being perhaps that we won't need to apologize, boast, make excuses for or otherwise explain who and what we are, unless, of course, we manage to destroy ourselves first.
Yonatan Kunda, Neta and Raz Weiner use Spoken Word to create a text that is an effervescent, often hilarious riff on language just as their costumes by Michal Kapluto are equally an exuberant riff on shtetl garb.

Nothing escapes. From excessive name-dropping to security-with-a-capital S, authors Anna Cohen-Yanai, Kunda and Neta Weiner expertly flay our every fear, pretension, and sacred cow.  It's a bit overlong, a preachy moment here and there, but oh boy, it's fun.

Despite the presence of a sterling cast giving it their all, David Kigler in the title role, Florence Bloch as his adoring secretary, Rachel Dobson as the archtypical Jewish Mother, Dina Bley as the doctor, Yossi Toledo as brother John and Albert Cohen totally wasted as a clownish messenger from the Next World, Kigler,  written and directed by Oded Lifschitz, is a banal and predictable play within a play about emotional identity.  Kigler, a frustrated and unhappy insurance salesman, is called to the deathbed of his younger, but always more successful brother John. Things go awry though, because John not only recovers but takes over his bro's girl. A rather long 75 minutes.

Poisoned Hyssop (Haralat Za'atar in Hebrew)  by Ala Halihal combines traditional and allegorical Arab puppet theater with the Western tradition. Za'atar seller Yussuf (Misreh Masri) contends his product is one of those miracle herbs that does everything from curing stomach upsets to aiding co-existence. Always amiable, some might say fawning, he creates little shows to that effect for his Jewish customers with the aid of his puppet, Sesame (Henry Andreus). But not tonight.  Sesame forces Yussuf to acknowledge the true misery of his condition, and it kills him.  The show tells rather than shows and Masri overdoes it a bit.

As Sesame, Andreus is polished as Fred Astaire and dances a bit like him too.

Where Shmuel Hasfari uses symbols and allusions to get something of the same point across, new playwright Daniel Zehavi utters a scream of pure anguish, and his Dawns suffers thereby. It shrieks that not only has Israel betrayed every single principle that buttressed its founding, but it has become a vicious and brutal tyranny.

Dawns means a 1000 sunrises, and at each sunrise another enemy is executed at this isolated killing ground where each soldier must remain for a 1000 days before he is relieved. Except that this time there's a new medic whose humanity is still pretty intact, who unconsciously violates the 'norms', which, as they're revealed, move from surrealistic to a mind-numbing routine.

Daniel Shapira produces a stunningly sensitive portrayal of a desensitized automaton for whom a final killing is just too much, complemented by Yinon Shazo as the condemned, Elad Rotem as the medic and Shahar Zakai as the Officer.

A Donkey Eats an Orange
A Family Meal
Acre Festival, 3/10/12

Usually the Acre Festival plays express a variety of takes on life in contemporary Israel, but  many of this year's offerings seem to have a common theme – the decay of Israeli society if not Israel itself; its transformation from a community animated by high ideals and a common goal into splintered groups motivated by self-interest in its least attractive manifestations.

Did artistic directors Moni Yosef and Smadar Ya'aron subconsciously pick precisely those groups that shared what may be their own chilly apprehension of Israel today? Perhaps. Yet it is more likely that being artists, the groups' antennae are attuned to that perception, and respond to its threat.

Donkey and We're Building a Port Here are alike in that they do not have a plot – none of the plays do in the conventional sense – rather they are a collage of iconic Israeli situations. But where Port manipulates language, Donkey employs a wicked and witty irony to carry the bleak message that Israel is set to self-destruct. Moreover, in case we miss the point, piles of burlap rags and objects ram it home as does Grandma's non-recollection that  ”it was either 'am Israel chai' [Israel lives] or 'itbach el Yahud' [slaughter the Jew], but it was against us.”

Actors Tal, Nitzan Naor, Etal Radochinski, Na'ama Radler, and Neta Shpigelman winningly and skillfully portray a variety of Israeli 'types', such as class pet Nitzan, survivor Grandma Neta or über-macho Eyal.

The über-macho Israeli male also features in Aharona Israel's challenging Marathon. It is a movement theater piece during which actors Ilya Dumnov, Daniel Pikes and Merav Dagan run most of the time. They are to be admired for sheer stamina if nothing else, but there's more to them. In this one, being Israeli is spoken/enacted through a series of buzzwords, such as 'Nachman' [of Bratslav], 'grenade', 'yizkor' [memorial]. Why are they running, why does it matter? Is it a point of honor that they must finish what they started, heads held high? Or is the marathon a treadmill from which they cannot alight, a portmanteau of painful memories through which Israel's ongoing struggle for existence and identity is reflected?

Where Donkey suggests that from an early age our children are indoctrinated to certain values, Polio, which has nothing to do with the disease, more or less states bluntly that our children are more brainwashed than educated.

“Let's be careful what we put into our children's heads,” suggests one of the characters.

Polio, an allegory written and directed by Hila Golan, is set on two levels in an actual school and children from the school, both Arab and Jewish, are also actors in it. We are obsessed here with ceremonies, Polio says, a Memorial Culture whose mental clutter is represented by tables and chairs that gradually fill the space and by action that becomes increasingly chaotic. The very title itself is a metaphor because the polio virus causes paralysis and affects mainly children.

Ariel Bronze's A Family Dinner is four gloriously vulgar sketches of dysfunctional families performed with lip-smacking élan by Noa Biron, Daniel Bronfman, Azar Kalmovitch and Uri Yaniv. Milquetoast husband Reuven maddened by the sterility of his family life makes a Faustian bargain with a mysterious messenger that empowers him first to abuse, then murder his wife and son. A gay couple objects violently to the idea that their son is heterosexual. English aristocrats sip afternoon tea as they get colder and colder and in the final sketch, the parents from hell terminally embarrass their Nobel-prizewinning son at a celebratory dinner in a fine restaurant.

Family Dinner rambunctiously sends up racism, arrogance, prejudice and other unlovely characteristics that unfortunately bedevil us.

The Peacock from Silwan
Acre Festival, 4/10/12

“The writing is always on the wall,” says Iman, one of the characters in the shattering The Peacock from Silwan, and so it is. Written by Alma Ginehar, directed by Alon Chen and Sinai Peter, Peacock has the awful inevitability of Greek tragedy. You see it coming, but are powerless to avert it.

Peacock is what happens not only when people are not listening but when they do not even hear, when agenda, principle, ideology, egotism  and all the rest forget that it's human lives that are affected. And of course, it's nobody's fault.

Peacock was presented in a spacious and beautiful home in Acre's Old City, but Silwan is, of course, in Jerusalem. The Peacock from Silwan is the name of the beauty salon Iman (Samira Seraya) runs in the house. It belongs to her father, the crippled Gemayel (George Iskandar), who also plays a mute lad living with his mother Amal (Fabiana Meyuchas), also playing Efrat, an archeologist digging under the house for evidence of David's City.

Gemayal has obtained an injunction halting the dig and the tragedy is set in motion. Beautifully acted, thoughtfully presented and - with a blip or two – excellently written, Peacock is one of the best shows at Acre in years.

It's never a good beginning when the author/director of a piece needs to explain his creation, and if Martin Mogiliner's V'Lu seeks the interface between art and life it has a long search ahead. It's a multi-disciplinary work employing live action, video, and multiple stages with the audience moving among them as the scenes demand.

As his proof of that interface, the author proudly counts the real-life romance that blossomed between dancer Bar Alteres and performer Ariel Bronze.

Unhappily the piece itself is pretentious nonsense that seeks to impress through obscurity. The best evidence for that is that the stagehands wear hooded robes and the performers don't crack a smile throughout.

[The Acco Festival, supported by Israel’s Ministry of Culture, the Old Acre Development Company, and international organizations, has been produced by the city of Acre since 2000.  Many of the performances are staged in restored historic sites, such as the Crusader Citadel and Knights' Halls, in Acre’s Old City.  The festival’s become emblematic of the coexistence between Acre's Jewish and Arab inhabitants and each season's program includes performances by Arab artists, and presentations by theater professionals provide training for local Arab and Jewish teens, including newly-arrived immigrants.  The event has been reduced or postponed only twice because of ethnic disturbances: during the Second Intifada uprising in October 2000, and in 2008 due to the Yom Kippur riots, after which the festival was held during Hanukkah week.]

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