06 August 2013

Dispatches from Israel 2

by Helen Kaye

[When Helen Eleasari offered to send me the journal of her trip to Berlin (see ROT, 22 July), she also offered some recent reviews from her job at the Jerusalem Post.  (Helen, as readers of ROT may have discerned, writes for JP as Helen Kaye; her other work, including “Berlin,” is by-lined Helen Eleasari.)  Needless to add, I jumped at the opportunity to run Helen’s reviews, both as a way to continue to broaden the selection of voices that appear on ROT and to keep posting items about cultural events from other part of the country and the world, distant from my East Coast beat.   

[Two of the reviews below, originally published in May and July this year, are of plays by 63-year-old Israeli playwright and screenwriter Motti Lerner.  “To put into context the reviews,” when Helen sent me the copy, she remarked: “Motti Lerner is an intensely political playwright whose work is controversial here as it pulls no punches, especially vis a vis the messianic religious right.”  The third notice is of a Hebrew translation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (which Helen said was very hard to write).  “Omri Nitzan [the Macbeth director] is the artistic director of the Cameri,” Helen explained, “and has been for the last 15 years or so.  He's our Peter Brook, sort of.”]

Hastening the End
By Motti Lerner
Directed by Ron Ninio
Khan Theater, Jerusalem

The observant friends who have watched Motti Lerner’s Hastening the End are stiff with outrage. The situation, says one “is more complex. You can’t make a black or white poster out of everything.”

“Lerner is as fanatical as those he calls fanatics,” observes another. “[The play] is manipulative, things are taken out of context.”

And although this is a polemic rather than a play, and preaches to the converted, there is in it a discussion on the nature of religion, on the content of the relationship between man and the deity.

But it’s the polemic that is out front. Its attack is two-pronged. It pillories what is perceived as Jewish national religious fanaticism; the kind of fanaticism, maintains Lerner, that justifies cold-blooded murder of the ‘other’ or ‘the goy’ in the name of and sanctioned by Jewish Law, or Halacha. It also charges us with moral cowardice in that we back off, refusing to see a threat that, if permitted to rampage on, will destroy us.

The vehicle is a sort-of play within a play of a father/son relationship that goes terminally bad because religion opens a chasm between them.

Religious high-school student Yuval Rosenfeld, played with fiery conviction by Itay Zvulun, has dressed up for Purim as Baruch Goldstein, the New-York born physician who in 1994 opened fire on Muslim worshippers in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, killing 29 and wounding 125, was in his turn slaughtered by the enraged Muslims, and thereby became a hero-martyr to the extreme religious right.

Horrified that his son could identify with a killer, playwright Hagai Rosenfeld (Nir Ron), and formerly a yeshiva teacher himself, goes in search of the truth behind the massacre, proposing to write a play on Goldstein. Ron’s style of acting always conveys much with little, and here he beautifully shows us Hagai’s mounting emotional turbulence.

Director Ninio has the actors on stage throughout on Kineret Kisch’s yeshiva-classroom set, as if they’re participating in a ‘shi-ur’, a lesson in its biblical sense. Arye Tcherner invests his two rabbinical characters with a smug sanctimony whereas Jonathan Miller’s pair of settler rabbis shows fiery certitude. As Hagai’s former yeshiva colleague, Yossi Eini creates an uneasy Rabbi Amiel astride an abyss.

Not an easy play to see but if it provokes discourse, then it has done its job.

*  *  *  *
Pangs of the Messiah
By Motti Lerner
Directed by Kfir Azulai
Beersheva Theater, Beersheva (Be’er Sheva)

If this Pangs of the Messiah does one thing, it gives the settlers a human face, makes us realize they’re people, not just, as many perceive them, a symbol of intransigent and messianic religious nationalism.

The play itself may center on what takes place in a family home in Samaria, but its implications are national and grim. Unless we get our own house in order, very soon we won’t have one. Is this the pang? Is the title one of grim irony? Or do we take the title literally? As birth pangs produce a child, do these pangs produce Redemption?

Rabbi Shmuel Basson (Jonathan Tcherchi), a religious and political leader in his community, is desperately working to prevent the signing of a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and not just because his community will become part of the new Palestine. He genuinely believes such a treaty will be disastrous for the Jewish people, but intends to work within the law to get what he wants. Not so some of his household.

His son-in-law Benny (Nimrod Bergman) has already served time for murdering Arabs and will contemplate whatever it takes to effect that perceived Redemption. Lerner’s recent Hastening the End (Jerusalem Khan, May ’13) that deals with the Goldstein massacre in Hebron may be seen as the inevitable outcome of this ideology.

Basson’s son Avner (Oren Cohen), whom he had sent to the US to drum up support against the treaty among American Jews, returns home with his wife Tirtza (Noa Baron), and becomes radicalized, to her horror and disgust. As the negotiations move inexorably toward the signing of a treaty, events spiral out of control and more than lives are shattered.

Violence lurks throughout: Shmuel’s youngest, Nadav (Tom Hagi) is brain-damaged. His mother Amalia (Orna Rothberg) was beaten by a soldier during the pregnancy. She gets hit again now. Nadav’s dog is injured and on and on.

These are people whom history takes and shakes as they scrabble to control events. Azulai’s direction encompasses this as does the acting. Tcherchi soars as Shmuel, a principled man whose belief and faith in what he does are genuine. As Amalia, Rothberg is focused, intent on keeping their lives together. From his first moment on stage, Hagi quietly conveys that Nadav isn’t quite all there and as Tirtza, Baron lets us feel her growing despair.

As George Santayana said: Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

*  *  *  *

By William Shakespeare
Hebrew by Dori Parnes
Directed by Omri Nitzan
Cameri Theater, Tel Aviv
A production must reflect its place and time says Omri Nitzan, be “here and now”. Our world is visual, immediate. Everybody knows everything all the time. The social media see to that. Hence Macbeth. It’s ironic, vulgar, cynical, violent, gaudy, paranoid, brash, and overflows its bounds, into the aisles, the wings, anywhere there’s space.
That’s why the report to Duncan (Eli Gornstein) of Macbeth’s (Gil Frank) prowess at the beginning of the play is almost parody; that’s why, from the beginning we realize that Macbeth is essentially a little man who gets too big for his boots – even his “throne” dwarfs him; that’s why low comedy is juxtaposed with terror; why the scenes that Shakespeare keeps offstage we see close up and personal, and why the blood motif inundates not only events but the lighting, set and clothes.
Nitzan’s Macbeth is true to Shakespeare’s, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, according to Polish scholar Jan Kott posits a nightmare world that is ‘steeped in blood . . . it floods the stage.’ Macbeth is about lust, about toxic ambition, about power turned to megalomania, about slaughter, about pointlessness, and for us ‘here and now’, about the nightmare world we’ve lived in since 9/11.
After the murder of Duncan, after the murder of Banquo (Ohad Shahar), Macbeth can say callously (and famously) “. . . I am in blood/Stepp’d in so far that should I wade no more/Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”
He has made the choice. He made it when he killed Duncan. The greatness of Frank’s performance as Macbeth is that he makes us bear horrified witness to his trajectory from good to evil. He shows us how he chooses, lets us into the mind of an evolving monster, compelling our attention.
Ohad Shahar also grabs us. His Banquo is no shining moral light. No less opportunist than his colleague, he’s more cautious, willing to wait and see. Then Macbeth orders his murder. Outraged at the treachery, Banquo/Shahar bestows a gleeful and witty savagery on his ghost. There are some superb scenes in this Macbeth and the Banquet is one.
But the tipping point to all is Lady Macbeth (Ruthie Asarsai). She it is who goads him into the initial killing, she who reassures her panicked spouse that water will “wash this filthy witness from your hand”, she who is so intent upon the immediate goal that she does not think of consequence. She cannot bend, and so she breaks. Ruthie Asarsai reaches for the stars in this hugely demanding role and nearly gets there. What she cannot suppress is her own imagination, an attribute lacking in Shakespeare’s very literal Lady M, so that Asarsai’s Lady M becomes too vulnerable.
From the beginning Dudu Niv’s fine Macduff is a watcher; he’s wary, keeps his head down so he can keep it on. We watch him change as the visceral shock when he hears his family has been murdered, hits home. For the time it needs, he’ll become as vicious as his former boss.
Eli Gornstein shines as Duncan and the gentle Doctor.  Alon Dahan’s ‘drunken’ pseudo-gravity adds irony to the Porter’s speech and Witches Edna Balilius, Yarden Bracha and Rona Lee Shimon fling themselves gustily into their roles.
Travesty or triumph? This Macbeth is some of both yet more than either. Its blood-soaked darkness sheds some light on who and what we may be. And isn’t that the point?
[As ROTters will remember, I’ve known Helen since I directed her in a showcase of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan back in the ‘1976.  Though she was born in the U.K, Helen lived in the States for years before she making her aliyah to Israel.  Aside from her writing, Helen directs plays and musicals in English.  The articles Helen’s sent me for ROT include her most recent, “Berlin,” and coverage of the 2012 Acre (Acco) Festival (posted on ROT on 9 November 2012), summer theater for children (“Help! It's August: Kid-Friendly Summer Festivals in Israel,” 12 September 2010), and other productions like an adaptation/interpretation of The Trojan Women by Yukio Ninagawa,;The Tired Hero by Eldar Galor, and Not By Bread Alone by Nalagaat (all posted as “Dispatches from Israel,” 23 January 2013).  Helen’s JP review of Harper Regan in Tel Aviv is attached to my own report of 20 October 2012 as a comment dated 28 October.  With any luck at all, Helen will keep sending me interesting stuff to post on ROT for the benefit of its readers.] 

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