23 January 2013

Dispatches from Israel 1

by Helen Kaye

[I’ve published several reports and reviews by Helen Kaye, a friend and former actress who lives in Tel Aviv, before on ROT.  I knew Helen here in New York City, starting when I directed her in a production of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan; then she moved to Israel where she became a writer and, later, reviewer for the Jerusalem Post and started directing local productions in English, both musicals and straight plays, classics, standards, and originals.  Over the years since then, Helen’s covered the cultural beat for JP and done a fair amount of traveling for her own purposes, including two years teaching English at a provincial university in China.  Now and then she sends me things about the cultural and theater scene in Israel, including the recent Acre (Acco) Festival (see Helen’s reviews posted on ROT on 9 November 2012), as well as other experiences she’s had (“Help! It's August: Kid-Friendly Summer Festivals in Israel,” 12 September 2010) and spot productions she’s reviewed (Harper Regan in Tel Aviv, attached to my own report of 20 October 2012 as a comment dated 28 October).  Earlier this month, Helen sent me first her review of an adaptation/interpretation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women directed by Yukio Ninagawa, the Japanese experimental theater artist.  Later she sent me a copy of her review of a new Israeli play at the Acre Theater Centre (where the Acre Festival took place), The Tired Hero by Eldar Galor.  A few days later, she also sent me an old review of a show she saw in Tel Aviv that’s now playing here in New York City, Not by Bread Alone by Nalagaat.  I’m posting them on ROT out of interest in what’s going on theatrically in other parts of this country and the world.  ~Rick]

The Trojan Women
By Euripides
Directed by Yukio Ninagawa
Hebrew translation by Shimon Buzaglo
Japanese translation by Harue Yamagata
Arabic translation by Amin Salaam
Cameri/Tokyo Metropolitan Theaters
29/12/12 at the Cameri
Sound designer Masahiro Inoue and composer Umitaro Abe take the honors in this daring, ambitious Israeli/Japanese co-production of The Trojan Women. A choir wails, entreats, mourns and whispers. Bells, gongs and crashing percussion intensify the drama as they signal its unfolding and behind it all the endless crash of waves upon the shore.

For we are on the Trojan shore from whence the victorious Greek fleet will soon set sail for home, laden with rich plunder from the conquered city. The Trojan women of the title, and the play's Chorus, are their noble captives destined for humiliation and slavery, apportioned like cookies among the victors.

The Chorus of Greek tragedy is there to narrate the big picture, to offer comment and generally move the action along. Director Ninagawa has used Euripides classical 15, five each Japanese, Israeli and Israeli Arab, each speaking their own language in order to highlight their several cultures.

The leads too are divided so that one character may be speaking Japanese while another speaks Hebrew or Arabic.

Chief among these is distinguished Japanese actress Kayoko Shiraishi, who plays Hecuba, Queen of Troy and widow of the slaughtered Priam. Her daughter Cassandra, Apollo's virgin priestess and cursed prophet is Israel's Ola Shur Selektar), Israeli Arab Rawda plays great Hector's widow, Andromache and so further.

Written during the Peloponnesian Wars (431-404 BCE), Trojan Women demonstrates how war debases, how victor and vanquished both lose, how women in particular bear its brunt, no matter where. This Trojan Women calls up echoes from World Wars I and II, and, most shockingly, 9/11 how not?

Classical Greek drama lends itself to the equally classical forms and conventions of Japan's Noh and Kabuki traditions that Ninagawa employs to underpin this Trojan Women.

But above all Greek drama is text, and if the actors cannot plumb that text, the production plummets. Unhappily that is mostly the case here.

The cast is not entirely to blame. Since the English and Hebrew translations are pedestrian to put it politely, one can only surmise that the Japanese and Arabic translations are similar.

Nonetheless, despite a clunky text, its repetitions by each chorus quintet does not work, not only because they impede the action, but because most of the Chorus don't seem to have a clue about what they are saying or how to say it physically and vocally. Clad disastrously in a kind of white diaper, Poseidon (Ashraf Barhom) suffers this same impediment, as do Athena (Shiri Gadni) and Shur-Selektar.

Happily there are exceptions. Moti Katz as an overdressed, over-jewelled, blue-clad Menelaos, brings him to precise and comic life as a sleazy politician (wonder where he got that from?). The lovely Yoka Wao delivers a sultry and mysterious Helen. Mahmud Abu-Jazi is sturdy and decent as reluctant Greek herald Talthybius and Rawda makes Andromache very real.

'Pity and terror' truly describe the moving scenes between her and Hecuba, but it has to be said that Shiraishi's bereft queen too often slips over into garrulous harridan.

While visually impressive, the actual drama of this Trojan Women has buckled under its multicultural weight.

[Because this production and collaboration is so curious, I think it’s worth republishing the Cameri’s explanation of how and why this joint project happened.  Written by the dramaturg Dr. Varda Fish, who also initiated the production, “The Cameri Theatre Production of The Trojan Women by Euripides” was  published on the theater’s website (https://www.cameri.co.il/index.php?page_id=2533):

[Yukio Ninagawa, one of the greatest directors of modern theatre, will direct The Trojan Women by Greek tragedian Euripides in a coproduction of the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv and the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, Tokyo's biggest theatre. The production will be performed in three languages, Japanese, Hebrew, and Arabic, with a cast comprising actors from all three cultures. The play has been translated from Ancient Greek especially for this production: by Shimon Bouzaglo into Hebrew, by Harue Yamagata into Japanese, and by Egyptian translator Amin Salaam into Arabic. The production was initiated by Dr. Varda Fish in conjunction with the Cameri Theatre. It will premiere in Tokyo and Tel Aviv in December 2012, and will be one of the main events marking sixty years of diplomatic relations between Israel and Japan.

[Yukio Ninagawa One of the greatest Japanese directors, Yukio Ninagawa has for many years been a source of inspiration and influence for modern theatre all over the world. His unique visual style is captivating in its beauty, it is extremely sensual and intellectual, traditional and avant-garde, and draws from traditional Japanese theatre, namely Kabuki and Noh, and from them he creates a new language that touches upon contemporary life.

[Ninagawa began his theatrical career in 1955 as an actor. His first directing work was in 1969 when he directed the production of a Japanese play by Kunio Shimizu. Over the years he founded two theatre companies that work in two Tokyo theatres: Theatre Cocoon and Saitama Theatre. In 2006 he founded the Saitama Gold Theatre for people over fifty-five years of age.

[The diverse repertoire of plays Ninagawa has directed includes contemporary and classic Japanese drama, including plays by renowned playwrights Chikamatsu and Junichiro Tanizaki, Shakespeare, Greek tragedies, Chekhov, and modern European drama. He frequently goes back to directing plays with a new interpretation, and his productions are performed on some of the world's leading stages. The production of Titus Andronicus he directed was invited to participate in the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company Complete Works Festival (2006-2007), his production of Coriolanus was performed in the Barbican Theatre in 2007, and his Kabuki-style production of Twelfth Night was performed there in 2009.

[Many of his productions have been performed at the Lincoln Center in New York, and the Kennedy Center in Washington. Ninagawa has won numerous awards for his work all over the world, and last year he received the prestigious Order of Culture presented by the Emperor of Japan for his contribution to culture.

[The Trojan Women by Euripides One of the greatest political dramas of all time, and perhaps the best known anti-war play, is being staged in Israeli theatre for the first time in Euripides' original version, which was first performed in Ancient Greece in 415 BCE. The adaptation of The Trojan Women by Jean-Paul Sartre, who turned it into an anti-colonial play during the Algerian War, has been performed in Israeli theatre several times. The most well-known adaptation in Israel was staged in 1983 in the wake of the First Lebanon War, which was directed by German director Holk Freytag for Habima National Theatre. A year later, the Cameri Theatre staged Hanoch Levin's adaptation, The Lost Women of Troy, an anti-war play that also alludes to the dangers inherent in democracy. Ninagawa's choice of Euripides' play expresses not only his commitment to peace, but also his desire to expose by means of his remarkable visual theatre language, a profound emotional world shared by all three cultures: Hebrew, Arabic, and Japanese.

[Synopsis After a ten-year siege, the Greeks finally enter the city of Troy by means of the wooden horse conceived by the goddess Athena. They destroy the city, kill all the men, and now mean to return to their homeland taking the women with them as slaves and concubines. The war broke out when Paris, King of Troy, abducted Helen, the beautiful Spartan wife of Greek general Menelaus, and absconded with her back to his homeland. Now Menelaus returns to Greece with his wife, vowing to kill her. Hecuba, the dethroned Queen of Troy, is to be taken by Odysseus, her daughter Cassandra is to become Agamemnon's concubine, and Andromache, wife of Hector son of Hecuba who was killed in the war, is to be taken by Neoptolemus, brother of Achilles who was killed in the war as well. Her baby son, Hecuba's grandson, is to be thrown from the battlements by the Greeks who fear that the boy will grow up to avenge the destruction of the city and rebuild it.

[The play is based on a series of myths about wars and passions, and is Euripides' reaction to a long series of conquests and acts of slaughter, abuse of prisoners, especially women and children, that took place in his time. The most infamous war during his lifetime was the Twenty-Seven Year War between Athens, Sparta, and their allies. This was also the period when the Sophists and the art of rhetoric flourished, which was manifested in Athens in public debates in favor of war and against it.

[In The Trojan Women Euripides created a play that is a tragedy about victors being defeated, about challenging the status of the hero, and about the boundaries of power. In this play Euripides examines the sparring by means of the sword and the word, and at the same time shows their limitations. In this respect The Trojan Women is a radical and revolutionary play, but above all it is one of the most human plays to be written in its time. It touches upon the ambivalent, universal conditions of the human soul. The Trojan Women shifts between hate and love of the country where they are destined to live a life of exile and humiliation. Andromache does not know whether to open her heart to her new husband or remain faithful to her dead one. Cassandra both wants and does not want to become Agamemnon's concubine, and Talthybius, the Greek herald who is compelled to carry out his orders, is torn apart by pity for the Trojan women.]

*  *  *  *
[Of her next review, Helen wrote me: “Titled The Tired Hero, [the] play was a confused polemic on how this country bears, raises and grooms its sons to become, willy nilly, cannon fodder.”  She sent me that message on 5 January, three days after having seen the performance, but the review didn’t appear in JP until 13 January because Helen also told me she had to “figure out what to write.”  (The Acre Theater Centre, Helen informs me, is “a fringe house sited in the old Crusader fortress – the site also of the Acre Festival.)]

The Tired Hero
By Eldar Galor
Directed by Avi Gibson Barel
Acre Theater Centre

The Tired Hero is billed as a requiem for an unborn child. We conceive, bear and bring up our sons to become cannon fodder, says this angry, anguished polemic. On a stage by Pancho Edelberg that resembles a desert after a battle with photos of loved ones ground into its sands, four mothers, two of whom are played by men, strain to give birth. The hero emerges clad in khaki and with a caul around his head.

The tradition has it that a child born with a caul is destined for greatness. The savage irony of this caul is that the hero is destined for an early grave, where annual commemorations to his memory will elevate him to the greatness he might have achieved.

As he grows, each of the four mothers exhorts the boy through the several myths each holds as a truth. One mother is a Holocaust survivor, disciple of the “never again” ethos. Another has already lost two sons and is resigned to the loss of this third.

The third is a patriotic kibbutznik wedded to the collective, and the fourth, already clad in black, prepares the hero to give his all for the Homeland.

But the IDF itself has changed, says the play. It has lost its ideals, has become the oppressor, has internalized the trappings of might.

“Values change,” says the woman in black.

“Nobody prepared us for this kind of war,” cries the Soldier, “we’re no longer the good guys. . . . Mother, tell me I’m a hero.”

The actors are not listed by character but all are effective, especially the one playing the mother with two sons already dead.

The players are Dor Aloni, Ido Yona Yimin, Adva Levi-Goshen, Tehiya Suliman and Motti Tamam.

This is not an easy play to watch, mainly because it makes its point too shrilly. Sometimes speaking quietly shouts loudest.

*  *  *  *
[Helen wrote me on 17 January about a performance that had just opened here in New York but which she had seen four-and-a-half years ago in Tel Aviv.  “I was very moved when I saw it four years ago,” she told me of Nalagaat's Not by Bread Alone. “This is a theater company comprised of deaf/blind/deaf and blind people.”  She sent me her JP review and strongly recommended I catch it while it was here.  (A feature on the company, Nalagaat, and the performance ran in the New York Times on 16 January, the day the production opened here.  “2 Senses Missing, 3 Others Step Up” by Isabel Kershner is really a review of a Tel Aviv performance with a little extra commentary threaded through.)  I plan to try to get to the show, which is at NYU, just a few blocks south of my apartment, and I’ll certainly write something about it myself if I do.]

Not by Bread Alone
Directed by Adina Tal
Nalagaat Theater

This is theater at its most pure, the kind of theater that may have happened before man became verbal, before artifice became art, before it accreted ritual or the "willing suspension of disbelief".

During the kneading, shaping, rising and baking of bread, the 11 deaf and blind actors of Nalagaat play their pain, dreams and fantasies for the audience they cannot see or hear, and whose applause they sense because their guides/translators pat their shoulders. Some speak, some do not, but all are eloquent because all speak the truth of their hearts. They move assuredly about the stage, they are comfortable with their actions, they communicate with the audience, they perform. They are professional. They are also infinitely moving because they so infinitely believe.

Each of the cast offers unique moments, but among them Batsheva Rabanseri's graceful body-language and Mark Yaroski's clowning stand out.

[According to the company’s website, the Nalagaat Deaf-Blind Acting Ensemble was founded to integrate deaf and blind people into the community, promote their needs and aspirations, and provide them with the opportunity to express themselves and exercise one of the most basic rights: to contribute to society. 

[By performing on the stage, the actors of the Nalagaat Theater Deaf-Blind Acting Ensemble are given an opportunity to express themselves creatively and give their audience a meaningful experience.  The show enhances public awareness to the fact that deaf and blind people need to be accepted as equal citizens and promotes universal values of solidarity, mutual respect, tolerance, and coexistence.

[The first production of the Deaf-Blind Acting Ensemble, Light is Heard in Zig Zag, was performed throughout Israel and abroad with great success, receiving rave press reviews.  Its second production, Not by Bread Alone, began on stage at the “Nalaga’at” Center at the Jaffa port.

[The Nalagaat Theater (the name is Hebrew for “Please Do Touch”) offers its audience an artistic and human experience and seeks to change people’s perceptions and views.  It aims at interconnecting social groups and communities through art and emotion, regardless of faith, races, or cultural background.  The general public is invited to meet quite an unusual group of deaf and blind people who are creative, self-sufficient, and joyful, and who wish to present their audience with a wonderful gift: the gift of art.

[The Deaf-Blind Acting Ensemble of the Nalagaat Theater is composed of 11 actors.  Some of them are totally deaf and blind, others have remains of sight and hearing abilities.  Each Nalagaat actor is accompanied at rehearsals and on stage by a personal interpreter. Most of the actors suffer from Usher Syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes deafness and a gradual vision loss associated with the eye disease retinitis pigmentosa. This illness develops during adolescence or later and causes sight loss and ultimately complete blindness.  Being engaged at the theater on a permanent basis is crucial for increasing the actors’ self-confidence and for improving interpersonal communication skills.  It also helps to reduce their solitude and social isolation by meeting audiences of people who can see and hear or people with other types of disabilities.

[Most deaf-blind people are capable of communicating only with a person who knows ‘tactile sign-language.’  At Nalagaat, we developed various methods of communication through the years and the group members communicate in many different ways determined by the nature of their condition.  For example, Itzik uses the hand-palm alphabet—which is tapped on his hand (each joint on the hand being a Hebrew letter); however, when Yuri wants to communicate with Itzik, he taps in Braille.  Yuri, Igor, and Mark use Russian sign language interpreted to them by Tikva.  In addition, she interprets Genia’s spoken Russian into Hebrew and into Israeli sign-language.  Nahch’e speaks in a loud voice near Shoshana’s and Genia’s ears since they both have remains of audition, and Miki, a deaf interpreter, observes another tactile sign language interpreter and passes it on to another member of the group.]


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