12 September 2016

Dispatches from Israel 8

by Helen Kaye

[On 10 July, Helen Kaye, my friend who reviews for the Jerusalem Post, sent me a collection of some of her recent notices.  (I just posted two from last spring on 13 July.)  When she asked if I was interested in receiving these pieces (as if I wouldn’t be!), Helen noted that these “imply a comment on current affairs here”—meaning, of course, events and concerns in Israel and the Middle East.  What Helen, who ROTters will recall lives in Tel Aviv, means is that embedded in the plays and reviews are ideas that bear on how Israelis live and think today (even, you may be surprised to find, plays written or set long before Israel even existed).  Because the JP, the major English-language newspaper in Israel, gives Helen so little space for her reviews and because she’s writing primarily for other Israelis who already know most of the references, Helen doesn’t explain or identify them.  For us Americans (and other non-Israelis), I’ll give a brief explanation of some of the events, people, and expressions which Helen mentions.  I’ll provide those explanations following each notice.]

On the Grill
Written and directed by Dror Keren
Cameri Theatre, Tel Aviv; 11 December 2015

The last 15 minutes of Dror Keren’s from-the-heart On the Grill are worth its somewhat rambling (too much small talk), structure, and I was probably not the only one in the vociferously applauding audience with tears in their eyes. Not strictly because of what happens, but because it has to be that way, now, and for the foreseeable future.

The play’s title is actual and a metaphor; a metaphor because we’re all on the rack here [to be explained]. Actual because it’s set in the backyard of a home on a veteran kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley where the family is gathering to celebrate Independence Day, and where Zvika (the peerless Rami Baruch) is getting ready for the traditional Independence Day barbeque.

He’s brought the steaks, the chops, the sausages from the Arab butcher in the nearby village – “What a mob scene! You’ve no idea . . . but he saved them specially for me.” – because the whole family will be together, and the family is a microcosm of today’s Israel.

Grandma Gisella (Miriam Zohar) is a holocaust survivor, was an illegal immigrant, married a kibbutznik and the past. Now she’s in a wheelchair, cared for by Raja (Adam Sheffer) from India. Avinoam (Yossi Kantz), an old and still fiery rebel, is Tirtza’s (Irit Kaplan) dad and she’s rigid with worry because “the situation” may send her son Gilad (Asaf Maron) into combat. His cousin Mordi (Avishai Meridor), suffering from PTSD from a previous war, has been living in Berlin for four years. He’s come for a visit with his non-Jewish German partner Johanna (Lena-Ann Castrup). Also invited is his former lover Alona (Shelly Ben-Yosef), now divorced.

And holding it all together is no-nonsense, practical Rochale, Zvika’s wife, Mordi’s mother.

As the tension builds, as jets roar above, as they watch TV and wait for the phone to ring, it doesn’t take too long before the anger, the resentments explode, before the generations collide, before the present replays the past.

The acting is so good that it seems we’re eavesdropping, not sitting in a theater. Avishai Meridor  and Adam Sheffer need work on diction and body-language respectively, but experience will provide that, and these are quibbles against simply superb ensemble work.

Now for the explanation. We’re on the rack because our lives here are schizophrenic. We live normal lives in an abnormal situation. We realized a dream and are destroying it.

“Is that fireworks, or artillery?” asks (I think) Rochele as explosions split the night sky. That’s our reality here. That’s what On the Grill shows us. Like Hanoch Levin’s Murder, Dror Keren’s On the Grill  is an important play.

[Israeli Independence Day is marked, according to the Hebrew calendar, on 5 Iyar (the eighth month of the secular year; in 2015 that corresponded with 23 April and in 2016, 12 May).  The “dream” to which Helen alludes is, of course, the establishment of a Jewish homeland after the horror and death of the Nazi Holocaust of World War II.  It was “realized” when the State of Israel was established in 1948, but I think Helen sees its destruction in the bad decisions of some of its post-independence leaders and the continuing intransigence of its current administration to any kind of accommodation with Palestinians and its militant rejection by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government of  a two-state path to peace.  (Please note that this is my own interpretation of Helen’s comment, although she’s expressed such sentiments to me often.)]

*  *  *  *
To the Edge of the Land
After the novel by David Grossman
Written and Directed by Hanan Snir
Joint production of Habima and Cameri Theatres, Tel Aviv; 14 March 2016

The book has been translated into a score of languages and ecstatically reviewed. The play is in Hebrew. It explains us to ourselves but it’s also the portrait of us that the world doesn’t see encapsulated into a phenomenal, unforgettable, illuminating, wrenching evening at the theater.  Just for that it deserves an English version.

An added and awful irony is that Mr. Grossman’s son Uri was killed in the 2nd Lebanon War while he was close to the end of, but still writing, the book.

For a few years now we’ve been uneasy about ourselves, about where we’re going, about what we’re doing to ourselves (and to others), as a people, as a nation.  As a people, as a nation, we’ve tried to reconcile lives that are lived on the edge of an abyss; to live normally in the fractious spaces between the endless wars.

Our theater reflects this existential dis-ease . It pops up everywhere, in plays like Mr. Snir’s brilliant take on Oedipus Rex, in the edgy, questing offerings at such as the Acre Festival, even in modern classics, such as West Side Story.

The Hebrew title of Edge is A Woman Fleeing Tidings – evil tidings, that is; that awful knock at the door, the ‘tidings’ etched on the serried ranks of military gravestones that punctuate our wars.

Edge starts and ends with war.  Ora (Efrat Ben Zur), Avram (Dror Keren) and Ilan (Amnon Wolf) meet as teens in hospital during the six day war in 1967. The relationship then established somehow endures. Now estranged husband  Ilan is somewhere in South America with their son,  Adam.  Avram lives a half life of agony, fear and regret. Ora plans on a hiking trip to the Galilee with her son Ofer (Daniel Sabbag), whose biological father Avram is. Then, on the day of his demobilization, Ofer gets a special ops call-up from the IDF.

If she flees, Ora’s panicked mind tells her, then she’ll avoid those tidings, then Ofer will be safe. She rousts out Avram, forcing him to go with her. The journey is the story of the ties that bind, that heal, that destroy, the ties of love, of pain, of joys and fears among and for us and the bruised, beautiful, laden land in which we live.

Hanan Snir has set the action in Roni Toren’s high, seemingly doorless, white walled space – itself a metaphor – on whose surface the Galilee will be drawn, and into which are brought the beds, the screens, the stones, and the other bits and pieces needed to move things along. Like an IDF troupe, and moving with military precision, the superb company punctuates this and the action with songs in Hebrew and Arabic.

The versatile Rinat Matatov neatly plays the tambourine, an Arab and a Russian nurse. Guy Mesika as Sami, a wry Arab taxi driver, has a moment of high comedy and desperation as he unleashes an avalanche of curses on Ora and Avram, getting a well-deserved round of applause, as will Ora when she precipitates a different avalanche while making Ofer an “Arabic” (very fine-cut) salad.

Ben Zur, Wolf and Keren drive the play. Watching them, I had to remember to breathe. Had to stop myself from racing up there to comfort them, to encourage them, to hear and listen.

Keren, an expert and deft comedian, here powerfully reaches tragic hero. His stumbling, pitiful, brave Avram unfolds step by painful step. As passionate, impulsive Ora, Ben Zur scales new heights. Wolf impacts boldly as Ilan . . . but then Hanan Snir always coaxes from his actors more than they realize is in them.

To the Edge of the Land will keep you on the edge of your seat. A must see.

[The book by David Grossman, a 62-year-old Israeli author, was published in Hebrew in 2008 and in English (as To the End of the Land) in 2010 by Knopf.  The Second Lebanon War Helen mentions above, also known as the Israel-Hezbollah war, took place in 2006; the First Lebanon War (or the Lebanese Civil War) occurred in 1982.  Hanan Snir’s Oedipus Rex, to which Helen refers, was called Oedipus – A Case Study, and I posted Helen’s review in “Dispatches from Israel 4,” 2 June 2015.  Helen’s reviews of the 2012 Acre (Acco) Festival, posted on 9 November 2012. gives a little background on the annual festival.  The abbreviation “IDF” stands for Israel Defense Forces, the all-service organization of Israel’s army, navy, and air force.]

*  *  *  *
By Hillel Mittelpunkt
After the book by Klaus Mann
Directed by Omri Nitzan
Cameri Theatre, Tel Aviv; 16 March 2016

Watching the multilayered, biting Mittelpunkt/Nitzan production of Mephisto, a famous quote comes to mind: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing”. In other words, we can’t a) sit around like befuddled poultry and let evil grow and/or b) see only what serves our own interests.

We, that is the audience, are ‘a’ and the play indicts all of us. Hendrik Höfgen (Itai Tiran), the hero of Mephisto, stands in for us as ‘b’. Klaus Mann (1906-49) based Hendrik on his one-time [brother]-in-law, the actor/manager Gustaf Gründgens (1899-1963), insinuating that the latter collaborated with the Nazis.

“What do they want from me, I’m only an actor,” grumbles Hendrik at the end of the play, refusing even then to recognize that he has sold his soul to the devil to get what and where he wants. Driven, relentlessly ambitious, Hendrik will climb over anything and anybody for fame and recognition.

“Politics and theater don’t mix,” he says impatiently to Nicoletta (Helena Yarolova) his Lesbian colleague, but they will when Hitler comes to power in 1933, and he’ll let them because he’s unwilling (or unable) to make connections, and that takes him from Hamburg to the National Theater in Berlin, to prominence as its director, to fame for his Mephisto, the role he’s wanted all his life, and to the betrayal of former friends whom he sheds like old skin when they might endanger his future. Like his wife Barbara (Anastasia Fein), his black mistress Juliette (Ruthy Asarsay), his mentor and colleague – they’re Jews – Krug and Beck (Eli Gorenstein and Simha Barbiro), and all the rest.

Roni Toren’s set puts us on a stage of the stage where the entrances and exits are among racks of clothing, racks that will change dramatically for act II, where upstage are curtains and the footlights of the stage’s stage. Keren Granek’s lighting takes us from place to place, mixing light, shadow and darkness. Wagner and Mendelssohn make musical points alongside period music, and Polina Adamov dresses the women (not all) in sexy underwear and deprives the men of their shirts – it’s time for Omri Nitzan to leave his actors’ underwear where it belongs – under clothing. We get the often-made point that underwear reflects vulnerability.

But Mephisto will still stand among his greatest productions because the whole – we’ll get to the acting in a moment – is like a fist to the soul.

“Think” it commands. “Don’t just sit there. Don’t just talk about it. Act. We are striding down the wrong path and it will destroy us.”

“To be an actor is to know how to change masks,” says Hendrik and Tiran’s achievement in the role is that we don’t believe him as Hendrik because he never lets us see the real Hendrik, except once when the General (alias Herman Goering) verbally flays him to the bone. The phenomenal Dudu Niv plays Goering as the bully he was, reveling in the role and the power the Reich affords him, and Hendrik stands there quivering, the naked nobody he believes himself to be. Onstage, masked by the role, he’s powerful.

No wonder he’s exhausted by play’s end.

Eli Gorenstein magnificently plays three different roles: He’s Krug, manager of the Hamburg theater, Hendrik’s mentor, cynical, warm-hearted and a political realist. He’s Bruckner, Barbara’s stiff-necked, stiff-minded father. He’s von Munk, fanatical Nazi and cleanser of German Culture; and Gorenstein has different body language, stance and speech for each of them.

Asarsay has gone deep into herself for Juliette and has emerged with her most powerful performance to date, especially the scene in which she urges Hendrik to inform on her.

Yaralova’s lovely Nicoletta is wary, compassionate, and like Krug, a realist. Irit Kaplan too shines in her roles, among them the pathetic Actress and the quietly assured Leidenthal. Simcha Barbiro’s anxious, brave Beck is excellent.

Indeed, the entire cast can pat itself on the back for a job well done.

Ours is still to come, and we’d better get to it.

[The quotation Helen uses at the beginning of her review is usually attributed to the great (and much-quoted) Irish statesman, Edmund Burke (1729-97), but the fact is, its actual source is unknown and doesn’t appear in any of Burke’s published writings.  The statement has been used, in various forms, by many public figures, including John F. Kennedy, but its origins are obscure.  Novelist Klaus Mann, the son of Thomas Mann, wrote Mephisto in 1936; the role Helen says Hendrik Höfgen “wanted all his life” is Mephistopheles, the Devil’s representative, in Goethe’s Faust.  (I published a three-part article on “Faust Clones” and I discuss Goethe’s version in Part 1, posted on 15 January 2016.)  Field Marshal Hermann Goering (or Göring; 1893-1946), was commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, the German air force in the Third Reich.]

*  *  *  *
Blood Wedding
By Federico Garcia Lorca
Translated by Rina Litvin
Directed by Kfir Azulay
Beersheva Theater, Beersheba; 3 May 2016

The beginning of Kfir Azulay’s vision for Blood Wedding is so visually dramatic that your breath almost stops; and indeed, where do you go from there? Headlong into a dark tale driven by a culture of blood and death, death, blood, greed, and lust, and played out amid darkness in Yehudit Aharon’s tall black box of a set that’s lit by moveable rows of globe lamps, serried ranks of little moons, and the moon – as we know – is a symbol for lunacy and death. The costumes (also Aharon) are also mostly black.

None of the characters, except one, have names. They’re called by their function; the Bridegroom (Tom Avni), the Bride (Avigail Harari), the Mother (Shiri Golan), and so forth. The exception is Leonardo (Tom Hagi) because seen or unseen, he’s the catalyst for all that follows. Seen or unseen, he is Nemesis; Azulay deliberately draws parallels to classic Greek tragedy: the Young Girls and the Young Men, innocence gone, are here a black-clad chorus. The prescient Woodcutters become the Three Fates.

Symbolism abounds in the songs set to Elad Adar’s marvelous music with its deliberate dissonances, songs to the stallion (rampant masculinity, potency), to being a bride (innocence, desire), to the treacherous moon, the vagaries of fate.

How did Shakespeare put it?

“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends/Rough hew them how we will . . . ” (Hamlet).

The hard facts of the tragedy? Approving the unity of their extensive lands, the Mother, and the Father of the Bride (Yonatan Tcherchy) approve the uniting of the Bride and Bridegroom. But the Bride was once engaged to Leonardo, a romance the Father ended because Leonardo was poor. The wedding is celebrated – the reception is brilliantly portrayed by shadows on a sheet like a Javanese puppet play – but before the lustful Bridegroom can consummate the union, the Bride and Leonardo run away together. Inevitably he and the Bridegroom die and the Mother, who has lost both husband and elder son to clan conflict, is now bereft of all her men.

And how many here are in a similar situation? On both sides?

It’s the Mother, bitter, relentless, unforgiving, who is the center of Blood Wedding. She’s a stretch for any actress, but Ms. Golan is more than any actress and she latches onto the Mother like a hungry shark. Hungry also describes Tom Hagi’s restless, powerful and powerfully sensual Leonardo. There’s a viscerally erotic scene between him and the Bride in the forest.

Tom Avni’s neatly nebech Bridegroom tries to project a masculinity he hasn’t got, while Harari’s Bride is beautifully torn between her fear of and her desire for passion aka Leonardo.

The always versatile Tcherchy makes the corrupt Father a work of art – the handkerchief floating from his little finger is inspired while Ora Meirson, though her reading of the Wife (Zohar Meidan) lacks nothing, scales a new summit as Death with her dispassionate, ironic reporting of what has been, and what now is, that the two young men are so uselessly “killed for love . . ./With a knife/that penetrates deep/through the startled flesh . . .” as the Mother says.

Azulay intends, I think, to jolt us, to jerk us into awareness of what we’re doing here, and he nearly succeeds, so very nearly. If only he had let his (and Lorca’s) perceptions do their own talking but he’s so busy signalling ‘Pay Attention, This Is Important’ that the message itself falters.

[Spanish dramatist Federico García Lorca, (1898-1936) wrote the poetic tragedy Blood Wedding, based on a true story, in 1933.  (A supporter of leftists in Spain, Lorca was executed in 1936 by Francisco Franco’s right-wing Falangists.)   Helen labels the Bridegroom as played by Tom Avni as a nebech, a Yiddish word that’s often spelled and pronounced as nebbish in English.  According to Leo Rosten (The Joys of Yiddish, McGraw-Hill, 1968), who’s definitions are amazingly complete and delightfully amusing, a nebech is an “innocuous, ineffectual, weak, helpless or hapless unfortunate.  A Sad Sack.  A ‘loser.’”  (I find it droll that Helen uses a Yiddish characterization for a character in a classic Spanish play!  Droll, but not inaccurate.)]

*  *  *  *
The Actress
By Gur Koren
Directed by Gilad Kimchi
Bet Lessin, Tel Aviv; 30 June 2016

“Man proposes, God disposes” is what springs to mind after watching The Actress, Gur Koren’s perceptive, wickedly funny morality play on who we are today in the light of what we were, or might have been, yesterday. Right on p. 1 of the program there’s Koren’s vigorous disclaimer: “the play, based on [some] actual persons now deceased, is an imaginary tale . . . sections of which have no basis in reality.”

That’s fine, because the reality, as happens so often in our little land, might have been even less believable, probably bloodier, and as aspiring actress Shlomit (Neta Garty) tartly says “In this country, if you manage to escape a situation, be assured it’ll catch up with you.”

Let’s start with Orna Smorgonsky’s spot-on period costumes, Eran Atzmon’s admirable Li-La-Lo backstage set of big boxes, some of which open up into things like a bathroom, or jail cell, and with Yoav Cohen’s vibrant video art for which the boxes act as screen. Li-La-Lo (1944-54) was a popular variety stage. Another popular hangout to appear in the play is the then-Café Pilz – with owner Arye Pilz urbanely played by Lior Michaeli – down by the beach and now a McDonald’s.

The action takes place in 1947 marked by a) Etzel and/or Lehi resistance or b) Etzel and/or Lehi terrorism (depending which side you were on) against the British mandatory authorities, the saga of the Exodus and the historic November 29 UN vote approving the establishment of the State.

Shlomit, the not-so-successful aspiring actress, is backup for Shoshana Damari (Eti Vakhnin-Sober) at Li-La-Lo. She is tasked by her brother Aaron (Nadav Nates), a member of the Etzel, to lure to an Etzel safe-house English officer Adam Shinwell (Lior Baranes), son of the then UK Labor minister Emmanuel Shinwell. The aim is prisoner exchange – one Brit for three condemned Etzel men.

But, what with one thing and another, actually quite an entertaining lot of them, one of which is that Adam and Shlomit fall in love, the plan doesn’t work out, and at the end actual reality (more or less) transcends people’s dreams.

Gilad Kimchi’s direction is, and bravo, deliberately, a tad over the top and it works very well. Even better for us English speakers, the English actually speak English, albeit with atrocious Israeli accents (dialogue coach anyone?). Surtitles provide the Hebrew. 

Garty, Baranes, Nates dig with gusto into their roles, as do the other members of the ensemble, mentioning especially Zviki Levin as the very nimble manager of Li-La-Lo, Vakhnin-Sober as the temperamental Damari and Maayan Weissberg as blissfully self-centered Hanna Meierzak, better known to us all as the late and lamented Hanna Meron

Chuckles, giggles, titters punctuate the play throughout, but there’s only one real belly laugh. No, I’m not going to be the spoiler. Have fun. Go see it yourselves.

[Helen writes of Li-La-Lo, which was an Israeli vaudeville or music hall  theater in the middle of the last century; Café Pilz operated from 1938 to 1951 and then reopened in 1982 and operated until 2009.  (Arye Pilz lived from 1908 until 1992.)  She also invokes two paramilitary organizations of the Jewish struggle against the British Mandate in Palestine in the years before World War II and the establishment of the State of Israel: the Etzel and the Lehi.  Etzel was another name for the Irgun, essentially an anti-British guerrilla/terrorist force (of which former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was a member); Lehi was also known as the Stern Gang, a militant Zionist force which split from Irgun in 1940.  The 29 November UN vote to which Helen refers above was, of course, the 1947 United Nations resolution to partition Palestine into Jewish and Muslim states.  (The passage of the UN resolution was the starter’s gun for Israel’s War of Independence.)  Hanna Meron (more often spelled Maron; 1923-2014) was a Berlin-born Israeli actress who held the world’s record for the longest career in theater.  She was much honored and many Israeli actors name her as an inspiration and model.

[Helen’s previous contributions to ROT include “Dispatches” 1 through 7 on 23 January 2013, 6 August 2013, 20 November 2013, 2 June 2015, 22 August 2015 (which also includes an article Helen wrote on the Israel Festival), 6 October 2015, and 13 July 2016.  (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.]

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