22 August 2015

Dispatches from Israel 5

by Helen Kaye

[On 20 July, Helen Kaye, a regular reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, sent me a pair of recent notices, one for an Israeli play by Gilad Evron, a 60-year-old playwright, screenwriter, and author, called Jehu, also one for an adaptation by Romeo Castellucci of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar seen at the Israel Festival.  (Castellucci, 55, is an Italian stage director, playwright, artist, and designer who’s part of the European avant-garde theater.)  “Both, I think, icons for our times,” said Helen in her cover e-mail.  Helen’s other contributions to ROT include “Dispatches” 1, 2, 3, and 4 on 23 January 2013, 6 August 2013, 20 November 2013, and 2 June 2015.  (I also posted another of Helen’s JP reviews, Molière’s Tartuffe, on 2 November 2014 as a Comment to “Dispatches 3.”)  ROTters might also enjoy looking back at ”Help! It’s August: Kid-Friendly Summer Festivals in Israel,” 12 September 2010; ”Acre (Acco) Festival, Israel,” 9 November 2012; “Berlin,” 22 July 2013; “A Trip to Poland,” 7 August 2015.]

Julius Caesar – Spared  Parts
Conceived and directed by Romeo Castellucci
Based on Shakespeare’s play
Israel Festival, 3 June 2015

 “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” Thus said Sir Edward Grey on the eve of World War I, those four ghastly years of death and destruction that were the genesis of the even ghastlier horrors of World War II.

There are nine lamps on the stage of Romeo Castellucci’s poetic, chilling, utterly extraordinary, pared to its essence Julius Caesar. The number 9 is significant in both Christian and Jewish numerology for both good and evil.  The lamplight does not illuminate the action. It’s just there, until it isn’t.

The stage is covered in white, the color of purity, the color of mourning in some cultures. Caesar’s robe is blood red. The “acolytes,” there are three of them, wear white. There’s a blood- red stripe on the white of Mark Antony’s costume, an ironic echo to his famous speech, like the irony of the word ARS (art in Latin) on the plinth from which he speaks.

This Julius Caesar is all about the power for destruction and violence of words, or in their absence, the frightful deeds for which thumps, murmurs and other sound effects suffice. Not that there are all that many words. At the beginning we hear and see the exchange between the Tribune and the workmen of Rome, quite literally see because the actor (Simone Tony) shows us throat, uvula and vocal chords in action via an endoscope. It’s eerie, an internal universe.

Then Mark Antony (Dalmazio Vasini) haltingly speaks the famous “Friends, Romans and countrymen,” haltingly because the actor has undergone a total laryngectomy for cancer of the larynx and has learned to speak using his oesophagus. He struggles, but he gets them out, those inflammatory, provocative words that inflame and provoke even if we don’t quite understand them. We get the meaning. Caesar (Gianni Plazzi) doesn’t speak at all. He’s old, he shuffles, he hesitates, he gestures. But those gestures are firm, magisterial, confident. We get the meaning.

It’s over in 35 minutes, this Julius Caesar, but it continues to reverberate in the mind. The deserved accolades are almost incidental.

*  *  *  *
By Gilad Evron
Directed by Ilan Ronen
Habima, 23 June 2015

Ilan Ronen’s electric production of Jehu by Gilad Evron is not a cry. It is an apocalyptic screech.
“Watch out,” it howls. “This is the way we’re going; from violence to violence to destruction.”

There’s uncomfortable symbolism too, like the huge white on red א (aleph) that’s hung on the wall when Jehu assumes the crown, like the big aprons the men wear – absorb blood nicely – like the cleavers and big butchers’ knives the two soldiers – “we’re just the messengers, obeying orders,” carry in their belts, like the double row of grey filing cabinets on Niv Manor’s grim, functional set, like Natasha Tuchman Poliak’s meat-market costumes for the men.

Evron’s Jehu switches between its present and its past, and on the face of it, has nothing to do with us, here and now. It’s a Bible story, all written down in Second Kings, the story of Jehu who violently usurps the kingdom of Israel after shooting its rightful king, Yehoram, the son of Ahab and Jezebel, in the back. He then murders all of Ahab’s remaining 70 sons, not to mention Ahab’s assorted relatives, including Jezebel.

Actually, in the Bible, Jehu’s actions are sanctioned by the Lord and by prophecy because Ahab, encouraged by the pagan Jezebel, was an idolater and so the Lord is wroth. Jehu dies peacefully in his bed after 28 years and is succeeded by his son, Jehoahaz.

Is it true, what the Bible tells us, or just wishful thinking, the perpetuation of a myth?

And Evron’s Jehu (Gil Frank) is violent, charismatic, wily, a fast learner who turns on his creator, like the golem of Prague. His creator is Ziff (Dov Reiser), the king’s minister who is catatonic at the start of the play, but he’s voluble, manipulative and crafty when the action begins, when he first meets Jehu, when the ineffective Yehoram is still alive.

Jehu has been arrested for the massacre of Aramean villagers, and is brought before Ziff. Seeing in Jehu someone he can use, and consummate bureaucrat that he is, Ziff countermands the death sentence Army Chief Azgad (Alon Neumann) has decreed.

“It all started with that,” Azgad later hurls at him, but Ziff manages not to see anything of what horribly follows until Jehu grabs his daughter Keturah (Lea Gelfenstein).

Remember Pastor Niemoller’s famous quote?

“. . . then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out, for I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no-one left to speak for me.”

So it is for Ziff and Reiser has him down eerily pat. As the baffled, dogged, elderly Azgad, Neumann does very well, as does Razia Israeli as his wife, Ma’achah. Most affecting is the quiet dignity of their final scene together.

Gelfenstein does a high-wire, high-tension Keturah and Maya Maoz a steady Zilpah. She is Yehoram’s widow, brutalized by Jehu, and holding on by the most tenuous of threads.

Over the past few years, Gil Frank has been growing steadily as an actor and his Jehu is his finest work yet. Two years back he did an amazing Macbeth at the Cameri. More recently he was a wise and wary Creon/psychiatrist in Habima’s Oedipus. Frank’s emotional acuity propels him into the character’s essence, into its very guts, if we want to be a tad vulgar. His Jehu is a fine-tuned, street-smart thug, a maestro of the big lie. Frank doesn’t push Jehu at us, just lays him bare for us to shudder at.

Finally, Daniel Sabag and Shlomi Bertonov are very, very efficiently the two deliberately nameless soldiers who move the action along. They are the chorus, the movers, the necessary comic relief. They do not question. They are bland, unfailingly polite, most marvelously menacing and completely chilling. They are the apostles and the perpetrators of sanctioned violence.

We laugh at them, but we’d better pay attention. This Jehu serves as warning.

*  *  *  *
[I went on line in search of some basic facts about the Israel Festival and, lo and behold!, I found an article in the Jerusalem Post about this year’s event.  Guess who the reporter is.  Did ya guess?  It’s our very own Helen Kaye.  So, since the two reviews Helen sent me are so short (the JP severely curtails Helen’s column length for her notices), I’ve decided, with Helen’s acquiescence, to republish the article.  The basic factoids of the Festival are below in my exit remarks, but Helen’s report will answer some readers’ questions and lead you to more information.  Thanks Helen!  Once again.]

27 April 2015

An exciting European line-up is set to expand the festival’s horizons.

This year’s Israel Festival grabs the whole concept of a genre convention and tosses it into the nearest trashcan.

“Simply put,” says new festival artistic director Itzik Juli, “the stage begins to live when it frees itself of prior expectations and manages to shake us, the audience, into thinking afresh.”

Local artists from Germany, France, Finland, Romania and the Czech Republic are among the 12 participating nations focusing on new frontiers, transcending boundaries and exceeding limits.

The 54th Israel Festival in Jerusalem takes place from May 25-June 24 at the Jerusalem Theater and at venues all over the city.

Let’s get started with theater and the Jerusalem YMCA which Romeo Castellucci has reconfigured for his Julius Caesar, Spare Parts, a piece he calls an intervention in Shakespeare’s play. In it, the actors struggle mightily both to “reevaluate the text” as Castellucci puts it, and the deliberate obstacles in their way. Castellucci (b. 1960, Italy) is a hugely respected and prize-winning avant-garde director, playwright, designer and artist. This is his Israel Festival debut. (Italian w. Hebrew subtitles; all foreign-language performances in the festival are subtitled.) Adapted by Julien Gosselin from French writer Michel Houllebecq’s controversial novel Atomized, Elementary Particles was an instant hit at last year’s Avignon Festival. The multi-disciplinary work relates to the psycho-sexual perplexities of a whole generation via the adventures of two brothers abandoned by their mother in her quest to “find herself.” The performance is four hours long, with an intermission.

The concept of post-dramatic theater (PDT) informs She She Pop’s (Germany) take on Stravinsky’s famed Rite of Spring. PDT focuses not on the drama as such but on the context of performers, performance and stage.

The performers on stage and their real mothers (on video) delve into identity, the generation gap, mother- daughter relationships and more.

Belgian creator Miet Warlop and her Campo company bring us Mystery Magnet. At once funny and savage, Magnet has been described as “an amusement park for adults, on steroids.”

Good theater often asks difficult questions and young Rosenblum Prize-winning Israeli director Eyal Weiser poses some tough ones in How Is the Beast. In it, three fictional artists from Poland, Israel/Germany and Israel meet in Berlin during last year’s protective Edge campaign. Their fictional responses to an actual and critical article is the meat of the piece.

Another war, another time: in LysistrataX director Emmanuela Amichai takes Aristophanes’ anti-war satire into the future via dance, theater and video, and from Jerusalem’s Khan Theater comes KineretKineret based on Nathan Alterman’s 1912 play that asks, via idealistic young settlers, “Where have we come from, and where are we going?” The festival, like last year’s, hosts Center Stage, Jerusalem’s monodrama festival featuring 10 plays.

And let’s not forget the kids. Among their three shows are Bear in Mind, a musical by Eli Bijaoui based on the Three Bears fairy tale, and a dance theater piece, Carnival of the Animals (Saint Saens), by Barbara Latalova and company, that involves the kids in the action.

In dance, the Trisha Brown Company has two programs. One features three of Brown’s iconic pieces including Set and Reset. The other is In Plain Site, a homage to the 78-year-old post-modern dance pioneer specific to the Israel Museum. Unfinished Self, a deft solo by French dancer choreographer Xavier le Roy, looks at possible consequences to the human body of genetic engineering.

Snakeskin, performed within a poetic string installation, is by Canadian dancer Benoit La Chambre and won the 3013 Montreal Dance Prize.

I-On and X-On by Ivo Dimchev comes from a collaboration with iconoclastic sculptor Franz West that began in 2010 when the two met. Art transcends galleries, both agree, so in I-On Dimchev, alone in a gallery with abstract art, tries to come to grips with it, and himself. In X-On tourists in a museum are asked to interact with the sculptures. Watchable weirdness results.

And socially conscious, always innovative Vertigo returns to the Festival with a contemporary version of Anna Halprin’s (she worked with T.

Brown), seminal Parades and Changes that looks at and compares dance with everyday life. It was censored when first performed in the 1960s.

[The Israel Festival is a multidisciplinary arts festival held every spring.  Launched in 1961 as a summer program for classical music in the ancient Roman theater in Caesarea, the Festival’s center is now Jerusalem.  Current Festivals include, in addition to classical music, high-quality programs in ballet, jazz, theater, visual arts, and lectures, from Israel and abroad. Street performances and special events for children are also part of the Festival.  The Festival, a non-profit organization, is sponsored by the City of Jerusalem, and some of the performances are free.]


  1. Gilad Evron is a excellent playwright and I hope he becomes better known in the English-speaking world. Twice I had the opportunity to write about his play ULYSSES ON BOTTLES, first when it was presented in a staged reading in 2012 and this past spring when it was given a full-production:



    1. Thanks, Mr. Thal. It's interesting to hear that someone over here is familiar with some of the writers and other artists Helen covers in Israel. I'll be sure to let her know about your remarks.


    2. As an American critic who is interested in covering contemporary world-theater, I'm fairly lucky to be living in Boston where Guy Ben-Aharon's company, Israeli Stage, presents readings of several Israeli plays a year as well as the occasional fully staged production -- often bringing Israeli dramatists to visit. (Ben-Aharon also runs a few other series, presenting contemporary plays from other countries -- most notably with German Stage, which he does in collaboration with the Goethe Institut.)

      In Washington, D.C. Ari Roth started a Voices From A Changing Middle East theater festival when he was artistic director of Theater J but has since moved it to his new theater company, Mosaic, since being forced out of his former position.

    3. Ian, I thought you might like to see the review I wrote at the time:
      Ulysses on Bottles
      By Gilad Evron
      Directed by Ofira Henig
      Haifa Theater 16/2/11

      On the face of it, Gilad Evron's gripping Ulysses on Bottles is a straightforward leftist polemic that accuses us of brutality in Gaza.
      Ulysses (Khalifa Natour), a former teacher, has been arrested and charged with various security infractions for his attempt to reach Gaza on a raft made of bottles. His purpose? To teach Russian literature to the Azatis. Not even attorney Izaakov (Itcho Avital), who has taken his case for nothing, believes him, and unsurprisingly, Mr. Security (Yussuf Abu-Warda), Izaakov's colleague at the Defense Ministry thinks Ulysses is a major league liar.
      Izaakov's socially ambitious wife Nochi (Naomi Frumovitch-Pinkas) and his amoral wannabe partner Horesh (Assaf Solomon) provide additional fuel.
      That's on the face of it!
      Ulysses on Bottles is actually an allegory on the definition of freedom, what it means, what it entails and what it demands. Even the characters' names are part of it, as is the music and Avi Shechvi's set.
      The set is a black box punctuated by five featureless doors, three of which have a slit across the top, each leading to a different implied reality/choice, whether it's the comfort of Izaakov's home or the bleak horror of Ulysses' cell.
      Freedom, the play seems to be saying, very much depends on the choices you make, choices which may constrain you more than shackles, choices which may or may not be worth the price you pay. Russian literature embodies those choices.
      Hence the music that is mostly Lev Knipper's patriots' hymn, "Polyushko Polye" (Field, Oh My Field) with its vision of horses galloping across the Russian steppes, and then Doris Day singing "Whatever Will Be, Will Be".
      Both Natour and Avital reach a peak here, Natour with his stubborn, heroically unheroic Ulysses, Avital through his increasingly involved Izaakov. Abu-Warda totally inhabits the terminally suspicious Mr. Security and Solomon suavely pinpoints Horesh. It goes almost without saying that director Henig has done her usual superb job. Helen Kaye

    4. Mr. Thal:

      Thanks again for your comments. I feel the same way about world theater, and it's one of the principal reasons I enjoy living in New York--the access we have here to art, music, theater, and culture from around the globe. (I mention this attraction in my recent report on 'Ubu Roi' at the Lincoln Center Festival, posted on 27 Aug.)

      As for your comments on Ari Roth and Theater J: You may recall that I blogged on that situation in "The First Amendment & The Arts, Redux," posted on 13 February.


      P.S. There's another report coming up on an international performance, "Kafka on the Shore" by Yukio Ninagawa, to be published on 11 September.

    5. Helen -

      Thanks for sharing your review of Ulysses on Bottles. In my case, since I was writing for an American audience, there were nuances that it was important for Americans to understand. Whatever Evron's position in the Israeli political spectrum, the Israeli left can't afford the same naïveté that the American left expects as its birthright when discussing Israel and Gaza.

      I was particularly intrigued that the play did not allow either Ulysses or Izaakov out with their idealism intact -- and even Seinfeld, Mr. Security, was someone who had lost his idealism.


  2. Rick-

    I used to read your blog fairly regularly, and just chanced upon this entry the other day.

    I also covered the the fallout between Ari Roth and Theater J -- I had been privy to the tension from having attended a conference that Theater J was hosting just prior to the firing.

    I'll be sure to read your piece.