02 October 2016

Dispatches from Israel 9

by Helen Kaye

[I’ve published many articles by my friend Helen Kaye, aka Helen Eleasari, including eight previous selections of her reviews from the Jerusalem Post.  The last installment of “Dispatches from Israel,” number 8, was just this past 12 September, and “Dispatches 7” was only as far back as 13 July.  Though past reviews have covered productions of translated contemporary plays from Europe and the U.S. and classics from William Shakespeare and others—little Israel is as theater-crazy as many much more populous nations—this pair are both new Israeli plays.  For our purposes on ROT and in the U.S., that may be more interesting since it reveals what Israeli writers are interested in and what Israeli theaters want to present.  I expect you will find that so in this installment of Helen’s periodic “Dispatches.”]

Immoveable Mountain
By Gilad Evron
Directed by Irad Rubinstein
Bet Lessin, Tel Aviv; 27 July 2016

The play takes place in 16th-century feudal Japan, and is, of course, a parable of our lives and mores here. The mountain of the title is the land-hungry Takeda clan whose military ambitions aspire to the capture of Kyoto, the imperial capital, but in a crucial battle on the way, the Takeda is mortally wounded.

“Keep my death a secret for three years,” he orders his samurai, “lest the enemy be emboldened to march against you.”

To do that requires a Takeda in place. By a strange coincidence, a captured thief  played by Yoram Toledano giving the performance of his life, is his exact double, so he is bullied and threatened into compliance by the dead man’s brother, Itami (Nimrod Bergman) and his implacable samurai lieutenant, Murata (Daniel Brusovani). Eventually he is deemed ready, and is taken to the Takeda’s palace where he must successfully fool the First wife Kyoko (Yael Vekstein), son Yamada (Shadi Mar’i) and the Heir, Maso (Amit Moreshet).

Itami warns him “You’re a thief. You’ll always be a thief. If you forget that, you won’t be able to play the Takeda.”

But pretense is tricky because, of necessity, truth aka reality, tends to insinuate itself with unforeseen, sometimes disastrous results, as happens here, its metaphor being a pellucid fabric river pulled slowly across the stage whose color slowly turns to blood.

Its creator is set designer Paulina Adamov; her set for Mountain is extraordinary. There are three curved screens on wheels, at least 5 meters high, covered with a rusty scrim, that reveal, conceal, bedevil, deliberately bewilder according to how they’re moved; they become the maze that is the palace, Kyoko’s bedchamber, the council room. When the scrim is opaque, huge shadows menace. When it’s transparent we often glimpse what we should not.

Evron based his play on Japanese director Akira Kurasawa’s film Kagemusha (1980), taken from actual events in Japanese history. Reviewing the film, Roger Ebert wrote that “Kurasawa seems to be saying that great human endeavors . . . depend entirely on large numbers of men sharing the same fantasies or beliefs . . . whether or not the beliefs are based on reality . . . But when a belief is shattered, the result is confusion, destruction, and death.”

But Evron is saying something else. He’s saying that we’re in danger of mistaking the pretense for the real thing, that we are betraying who we are and what our purpose here is, but that the result will be the same – confusions, destruction and death.

Before we turn to the actors, let’s praise the technical staff – costume designer Maor Tzabar, Roy Yarkoni’s music, Ziv Voloshin’s marvelously moody lighting and stage battle coach Uri Bustan, all of whom have successfully labored to create on stage the aura of 16th century Japan, spiced by deliberate anachronisms like sunglasses, zippers and a chestful of medals.

To the acting: Toledano dominates the stage. His character must be and is both larger than life and diminished by it.  His character adapts in seconds, from terrified to confident, to wary, to tender, all underpinned by a nobility that grows and grows. He deserves every award going!
Vekstein is both vulnerable woman and steely-courageous samurai as Kyoko, Bergman is a properly wary, politically astute Itami and Brusovani’s Murata is most marvelously arrogant.

It’s almost superfluous to add that the laurels for this production must go to director Irad Rubinstein, whose opening scene for this production is breathtaking. But then, so is the show.

*  *  *  *
The Wolves
Written & directed by Hillel Mittelpunkt
Cameri, Tel Aviv; 28 July 2016

“We can't live moral lives if state policy is immoral,” Hillel Mittelpunk has said, and  in play after hard-hitting play, he has turned over the rock and laid bare our seamier side, often going to our past to express the present.

So it is with Wolves in which nothing is as it seems and lying is the norm. It’s set in 1978, the year after “Hama’apach” (the upset) which overturned Mapai’s (the then Labor Party) heretofore unbroken dominance, and brought to power Menahem Begin and the Herut – that has since morphed into Likud – an event that transformed both the body politic and society.

“The underdogs are on top, and don’t you forget it,” continues to reverberate.

And so to Zeeva (Tikki Dayan) on her failing flower farm well  reflected  by Alexandra Nardi’s sad-sack, shabby, peeling dwelling that features kitchen, living-room, yard and public space.

That’s where Zeeva – the name means she-wolf -  lives with her eldest son Dov (Alon Dahan) and  her  music teacher brother Schneur (Yitzhak Hizkiya), a sad and aging gay man.

She’s just about the only Revisionist (as the followers of Zeev Jabotinsky, the father of Herut/Likud) were called) on the moshav among a gaggle of Mapainiks who’ve lorded it over her for years. The occasion is the anniversary of her husband’s death, but she’s afraid that no-one will come because for years her own party has shunned her – we discover why later – but perhaps this year…

Then, suddenly, there in the doorway is Nerik (Dan Shapira), her younger son, the success story, the PhD who’s a lecturer at Georgetown University, and has a daughter by his American wife.  He’s home for the anniversary, he says, smiling easily.

Except that he isn’t.

“You’re lying,” his mother says. It takes one to know one. Zeeva lies as easily as she breathes, and that’s what drives Wolves. It’s the lies, evasions, and half-truths about ourselves and the way we live here that we make ourselves believe, and that will now envelop the family as Nerik is rebranded as an honest politician with only his light tan leather shoes – these and a dark business suit don’t mix – to remind us that’s he’s a phony.

They’re a neat touch, these, of a piece with costumer Raz Leshem’s other clothes, like Zeeva’s tasteless muumuus or scuffed boots, or  Dov’s  too well-worn work clothes. The clothes are as scruffy as the character, basically the only honest one in the bunch, but wearied to the bone of the way he lives. Dahan, amazing actor that he is, shows us the muddle that Dov lives in and under as well as a kind of desperate integrity that will allow his escape from the lies – a hint to the rest of us?

Dayan’s Zeeva is a survivor, no matter what. She drinks. She spouts dead slogans, but she’ll survive and win. She’s not nice, but you can’t despise or dislike her because she’s so real. The same is true for Hizkiya as the pathetic, lonely Schneur.  On the other hand, Shapira is a good choice for Nerik because the actor is always a little too conscious of himself, which works here.

Yossi Kantz as a political fixer and Tamar Keenan as Nerik’s former girl friend Yaira are effective but their characters seem to be fillers: the play would probably work without them.

And it does work. We’re left, as we’re meant to be, with a bad taste in our mouths.

[I will continue to publish Helen’s reviews, journals, and articles as long as she sends them to me.  Not only do I find her perspective interesting, but as a practiced cultural journalist, she knows how to get her point down in writing.  Since Helen’s also an actress (that’s how we met, way back in 1978) and a director, she has a great deal of practical knowledge about theater.  (She also did the costumes for the showcase in which I directed her 38 years ago, so she has some experience in production design as well.)  She’s been writing about culture for the JP since the ’80s, she can really take the long view.  I’m constantly in search of additional voices and points of view to include on ROT, especially from people who can write about subjects I can’t cover, and Helen offers a perfect example of what I look for.]

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