27 October 2017

Dispatches from Israel 12

by Helen Kaye

[It’s been over four months since I last shared some of Helen Kaye’s reviews from the Jerusalem Post with readers of Rick On Theater (see “Dispatches from Israel 11,” posted on 17 June).  That span covers a lot of territory in a country like Israel, which is ardent about its theater.  Earlier this week, Helen sent me a pair of recent notices, Job (based on the Old Testament book) and King of Dogs (adapted from Sholem Asch’s 1916 novel and 1917 play Motke the Thief).  I’ve put these two notices together with one Helen sent me last summer, A Horse Walks into a Bar, adapted for the stage from the novel by David Grossman, and I’m republishing them below as “Dispatches from Israel 12.”

[Sholem Asch (1880-1957), a Yiddish novelist, dramatist, and essayist, may be familiar now to ROTters because of the recent success of Indecent , Paula Vogel’s Broadway début (and 2017 Tony- and Drama Desk nominee) that’s based on Asch’s 1907 play God of Vengeance.  (Vogel’s play is about the controversy of God of Vengeance’s Broadway mounting in 1923, when the production was closed for obscenity and the actors were arrested.)  I recently posted an interview of Vogel and her fellow playwright Lynn Nottage, “In Conversation: Lynn Nottage & Paula Vogel” by Tari Stratton (originally published in The Dramatist, the journal of the Dramatists Guild of America), on 7 October.

[Readers may also recognize novelist David Grossman’s name because I saw a 2016 stage adaptation of another of his recent novels, To the End of the Land (2008), at last summer’s Lincoln Center Festival (see my report of 6 August, in which Horse gets a passing mention).  I had previously posted Helen’s review of the same play (filed under the title To the Edge of the Land) in “Dispatches from Israel 8” on 12 September 2016.]

A Horse Walks into a Bar
Adapted by Micha Loewensohn, Avner Ben Amos
    & Dror Keren
From the book by David Grossman
Directed by Dror Keren
Cameri Theatre, Tel Aviv; 17 July 2017

When Dovaleh G (Dror Keren) gets heckled from the audience – there are actors sown among it to do that – (former) Judge Avishay Lazar (Igal Zachs) and childhood friend bellows at them “Let the man tell his story!”

Which he does, and neither he nor the story get more attractive by the telling, because Dovaleh G is Dovaleh Greenstein, a second-rate comic doing his standup act of hoary old jokes liberally laced with verbal and physical sexual innuendo in a Netanya basement comedy club, the local equivalent, sort of, of Podunk, Ohio. [Netanya is a city of 200,000 in the North Central District of Israel 19 miles north of Tel Aviv. ~Rick]

He doesn’t seem to be a particularly nice person either because at first Lazar doesn’t remember him, and he gratuitously insults the one who does. She’s Pitz (Aya Granit Shva), so called because she’s a dwarf. [Pitz, or pits, is Yiddish for ‘tiny.’ ~Rick]

It’s his birthday too, and he’s reminded of the one event that colored his past, and defines his present, the death of his mother, the sequences of which he details minutely.

It’s difficult to watch him, because, with the hecklers, you’re thinking “shut up already. Been here. Done that,” because of course Dovaleh G is us, or most of us, who keep getting up after life has kicked us down, keep trying when everything we cherish is denatured.

“Remember me,” says Pitz when she goes onstage after the show’s ignominious end. Gently he kisses her, and so (perhaps) himself back to humanity.

Does Horse work on stage? Yes, and no. Yes because of Keren whose portrayal of the self-absorbed, self-flagellating Dovaleh G is so encompassing, so no-holds-barred that you almost can’t bear to watch it. And because of Zachs and especially Granit Shva who invest their (in comparison) tiny roles with completely credible completeness. Yossi Yarom, in his even tinier role of stage manager Yoav, manages beautifully his acute embarrassment at being where he is.

No for two reasons. One is the untimely death back in March of Micha Loewensohn, the show’s original director, thereby letting sentimentality creep in by the back door. [Loewensohn died suddenly at 65 on 20 March. ~Rick] As theater piece Horse can’t afford a minute of it. The second is that the book last month won the prestigious International Man Booker Prize which, willy-nilly, makes the show iconic; that, it really doesn’t need.

*  *  *  *
Adapted and directed by Yossi Yizraeli
Music by Joseph Bardanashvili
Incubator Theater (Jerusalem) at the Tzavta Theater, Tel Aviv; 1 October 2017

Part oratorio, part passion play, part morality play, totally mesmerizing, Job carries a caveat for us English speakers. Before you see this play you should read the book of Job because director Yizraeli has taken his drama’s words directly from the Bible, and few of us really understand Biblical Hebrew.

Part oratorio: because the music by Yosef Bardanashvili, played most beautifully on his cello by Yoni Gottlieb and sung with a great and soaring beauty by soprano Keren Hadar, who plays Job’s wife, supports the text as the great pillars Boaz and Yachin supported the Temple.

Part passion play: the Passion play dramatizes the life and death of Christ from the last supper to the crucifixion. Job is a passion play with a small ‘p’. It demonstrates an arc of suffering from shattering despair to acceptance.

Part morality play: These were popular in the 15th and early 16th centuries throughout Europe. They personified abstract qualities like good, evil, death, wisdom and so on. The most famous is Everyman. In Job it’s Job’s wife who most fulfils the personification of qualities as she laments, scolds, doubts, despairs, keens, comforts and questions, her body and her voice perfectly attuned.

The story: Job (Sasson Gabai) in our parlance is a tycoon, i.e. fabulously wealthy. He’s also a good, just and righteous man who praises God. God (Arik Eshet) says to Satan (Amit Ullman) “Isn’t he just great?” Satan says “And why wouldn’t he be? Let’s see how he behaves if he’s got nothing.” “Be my guest,” God says, and in a twinkling Job is reduced to penury and loses all his kids too. Job is frantic but he refuses to curse the Lord. Even when he’s afflicted with boils from crown to toe-tip, and harried by his faux-comforters, he remains faithful. But, he does more or less challenges God to prove to him why he’s been singled out for such punishment, at which God gives him what for, asking him who, precisely, is the Creator here? Sensibly Job says nothing, ceding all to the Lord. “Hmpf!” He says and restores to Job twice the wealth he had before.

There’s a sly humor in the interaction between God and Satan, elder brother Eshet humoring mischievous, restless, somewhat spiteful – there’s a terrific metaphor in here I won’t disclose – younger brother Ullman. Eshet’s God is something of a cynic except when he’s goaded – read misunderstood – then he roars. Ullman’s Satan knows his limits. He can push God only so far.

The trio playing Job’s comforters, and yes, the expression does come from here, in that while seeming to comfort they are actually criticizing/accusing Job, do a fine job; they’re wonderfully self-righteous, earnest Eliphaz (Eyal Nahmias), judicial Bildad (Omer Habaron), and somewhat smarmy Zophar (Eyal Nahmias). And they are oh-so-assiduous scholars.

Sasson Gabai is a great actor. His Job is a thinking man, tolerant, open-minded and devout. That devotion isn’t assumed but part of what and who he is so that when he suffers, and his sufferings all but physically and emotionally destroy him, he hangs onto that devotion as much from instinct as from intellect.

We speak here of faith, which, as theologian Paul Tillich says “is the state of being ultimately concerned”. Ultimate is all or nothing, and if your ultimate concern is devotion to God, then that’s it. What Job has is faith, and it is sorely tried.

Faith is different from religion. Religion is different from religiosity. Religion is the specific ordering of a set of beliefs in a higher power. Religiosity can be simple piety, but more recently it has come to mean excess, even affectation. I think that all three are a bit of what this Job is talking about at the deepest of its many levels.

You see, when Satan is clobbering Job, when God admonishes him, the three ‘comforters’ sit immersed in their holy books at the great big table that is covered in such – the set is by Eitan Neuman – and pay no attention at all. Faith is not their thing, but it had better be ours.

*  *  *  *
King of Dogs
By Yoav Shutan-Goshen and Irad Rubenstein
Based on Motke the Thief by Sholem Asch
Directed by Irad Rubenstein
Bet Lessin, Tel Aviv; 17 October 2017

First let’s say what’s wonderful about King of Dogs. This must begin with Leonard Cohen’s heart- and mind-rending songs that are a fit for this piece like bread is to butter, and all hail to Mr. Rubenstein for making the connection. At different and significant moments various members of the cast sing eight of them.

Then we’d have to go for Paulina Adamov’s mise en scene that involves a revolving* stage together with very few, but visually arresting set pieces such as the tall pole lights in the sleazy Café Kanarik. Then we must praise the ensemble, most of whom play multiple roles with very great aplomb and passion, especially Ofri Bitterman as Burek who animates Motke’s puppet dog with a touching and winning authenticity that amazes, then when the dog is killed, he is almost as canine in the role of sidekick.

A ten gun salute please to Yuval Yanai whose portraits of Kanarik, a ruffianly, lecherous gentile circus strongman and also as a cowardly, nervous Jewish matchmaker (shadchan) are faceted jewels, and to Shlomi Tapiero who, in the performance I saw, played Motke with breathtaking virtuosity that included a 1000 yard stare that would freeze a furnace. The scene between Motke and that shadchan is a comic gem.

Motke, Jewish, born to dirt poor parents, torn literally from his mother’s breast at a month old, brutalized at every turn with only his dog to love and be loved by, learns to steal, lie, cheat, anything to survive, like joining a traveling circus. Life tromps all over him. One day he determines to turn the tables, and becomes the much feared king of Warsaw’s criminal underworld. Then he falls in love and wants, with all his soul, to change, as Cohen sings in the 1974 ballad “Lover, Lover, Lover”. But life isn’t like that, and Motke’s ends in sorrow and death.

Asch wrote Motke Ganev in 1916. ‘Ganev’ is thief in Yiddish, which was the language of Asch’s books and plays, and the book pictures the hardscrabble life of most European Jewry at the time. Can the dramatization talk to us in 2017? I wish I could say yes, that King of Dogs tells us clearly that . . . but unhappily that’s not the case. There’s the nature versus nurture argument, there’s the inevitability of fate that has the whiff of Greek tragedy, there’s the ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword’, an adage very applicable and very perilous to us here, now and at this time. All of the above?

In real time there’s too much of King of Dogs. Yes, there are some good, some touching scenes, but in the main we are battered, perhaps in the hope that if they are intense enough, insistent enough, the meaning will break through. The show and we need to take a breath every now and then.

* The revolve’s electrics went on the blink, so it was unobtrusively and expertly spun manually for the rest of the show. Bravo!!

[Up till recent “Dispatches,” I’ve always listed Helen’s past contributions to ROT, but the list has grown too long to append now.  In lieu of cataloguing them all over again, I’ll take a short cut and suggest that anyone curious about my friend’s opinions of past productions in Israel, as well as her other cultural commentary and travel journals, look back at “Dispatches 10” (the last time I listed them all) for the dates of all Helen’s posts—look down in the afterword—and don’t forget number 11, referenced above.]

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