27 February 2018

Dispatches from Israel 13

by Helen Kaye

[Helen has curtailed her usual active schedule somewhat of late.  That’s part of why this is her first contribution to “Dispatched from Israel” since last October.  I’m glad to report, however, that she’s back now with three reviews of productions, all from Tel Aviv, from last fall and this month.  As many ROT readers know, I’ve known Helen for many years—from when she was an actress here in New York City—and we’ve remained in contact since she made her aliyah to Israel some 30 years ago.  She became a cultural journalist for the Jerusalem Post (as well as a stage director in her off-duty life) and has shared her writing with me and, therefore, with readers of Rick On Theater, since I started the blog almost nine yeas ago now.  I really like posting her JP reviews and occasional other reports on ROT because it gives me a chance to cover theater from outside my own small cruising range.  It’s also another voice on the blog, which I try to promote as much as I’m able.]

The Book of David
By Ro’i Chen based on the book by Stefan Heym
   directed by Yevgeny Arye
Gesher Theater, Tel Aviv; 18 September 2017

Whether he uses his knife to peel an apple or slit a throat, it’s all one to Benaya (Doron Tavori) Solomon’s (Micki Leon) thuggish, and ever practical Chief of Staff whose job it is to get things done – in this case The Book of David to be written by historian Eitan (Alon Friedman), plucked for the job from his cosy life with wife Esther (Karin Seruya) and mistress Lilit (Ruth Rasyuk).

If he undertakes the task it’ll have to be the truth Eitan says in half a question, awed in the presence of Might.

“Of course, of course,” Solomon reassures him, leaving Benaya to growl that it’s gotta be the ‘right’ book, making sure that the exploits of shepherd boy David turned powerful monarch David are seen in the ‘right’ light and if it all didn’t quite happen that way, well, “man is the legend he creates.” Facts, fiction, who cares?

Sic transit gloria mundi goes the Latin tag meaning that all glories and honors are transitory and Michael Karamenko seems to have designed his set of plastics, scaffolding – a replica of Michaelangelo’s celebrated David is surrounded by it – and creaking, massive wooden doors to reflect that, as does eternal outsider Amenhotep, Solomon’s massively cynical Egyptian eunuch beautifully handled by Israel Demidov. Stefania Georgeokayta’s costumes cleverly link past and present because, as we quickly understand, The Book of David is a satire that Yevgeny Arye has realized with his usual flair and perception, his love of all things circus this time portrayed in marvelously grotesque mime sequences that tell the story of David and Goliath and David and Bathsheba played by such as Gilad Kelter and Alexander Senderovitch.

To get to the truth Eitan interviews people who actually knew David such as Michal, his first wife played with sorrowful dignity by Lilian Roth and Yoav, David’s army chief, now a shadow offered by Yevgeny Terlitzki. It’s Yoav’s throat that Benaya slits, saying “We’re building an enlightened and cultured society here and don’t need the likes of him.”

Tavori and Leon alternate Solomon and Benaya – the all-wise and his alter ego. Tavori – gravelly voiced and little bent, makes Benaya impatient. He wants deeds, not words. As the natively arrogant Solomon, Leon is all for words. They hide so much.

Seruya and Rasiuk play their roles with grace. Friedman’s Eitan grows from village innocent to horrified chronicler who realizes too late what he’s let himself in for.

“The more I learn about you, the less I understand about myself,” Eitan tells the statue. “Danger lurks behind every written word.”

The satire is about legitimacy, truth and what we do with either or both. It’s not a coincidence that Eitan is a historian. “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” is a paraphrase from George Santayana.

Even if you do ignore history, go see the production. It’s well worth.

*  *  *  *
Herzl Said
By Ro’i Hen
Artistic direction by Yevgeny Arye
Music by Roni Reshef
Gesher Theater, Tel Aviv; 15 October 2017

Herzl Said starts with a coffin on a stage and it’s full steam ahead from there. This is a gleeful, irreverent, exhilarating, zippy and mischievous sleigh-ride of a show/satire that will delight the eye, tickle the funnybone and warm the heart of all who watch it, and by all means take the kids above the age of 10.

It’s only afterwards you realize that it also makes us think.

In 1902, two years before his death, Herzl published Altneuland, his famous and utopian romance on a future Jewish state in the then Ottoman Palestine whose contents fuel this show, as does the title. “Herzl Said” is the Israeli equivalent of “Simon Says” and its antics also propel the musical in unexpected, often risible, directions.

Just to give you a taste, during one of the many scenes, Herzl, very nicely played with the ever undiminished gravitas and dignity of the straight-man by Gilad Kelter, comes across the rest of the cast discussing another person whose name (tfoo!) begins with H, but Herzl thinks they’re discussing him . . . .

The rest of this accomplished cast plays two sets of characters, the Israelis of 1949, the year Herzl’s bones – remember that coffin? – were moved to their present site on Mt. Herzl, and the protagonists of the novel living in a Jewish state where Arabs and Jews live harmoniously side by side, where there’s no social or economic inequality, where . . . but you get the drift, right?

And they do it superbly, tossing off Ro’i Hen’s rhyming couplets, barbed dialogues and song parodies with utmost suavity, especially Ruth Rasyuk and Henry David, who sing most of them – taken from beloved songs by such as Naomi Shemer and John Lennon.

The others are Uri Yaniv, Assaf Pariente, Eli Menashe, and Ziv Zohar Meir in his alter ego as a 1949 haredi rabbi, who at one time snarls “If you will it. Zero. It’s a dream!”

Herzl Said happens on a stage within a stage – Nadav Barnea and Judith Aharon are responsible for the show’s deft lighting and costumes – into and from which actors and props enter/emerge as they switch between time and novel.

As every Israeli Jewish child knows, the thoroughly assimilated Viennese journalist Herzl was jerked into awareness of his Jewishness by the infamous Dreyfuss trial of 1895, convening the 1st Zionist congress at Basel in 1897.

And every Israeli Jewish child knows in his bones and blood the proper version of Herzl’s famous dictum from Altneuland: ‘If you will it, it is no dream’ but Hen and the play insist that we also pay attention to the end of that sentence – printed on page two of the handsome program – that says, no less definitely, “And if you don’t will it, everything I have related here is a dream, and a dream it will remain.”

Is that our aim? To be a failed dream? I hope not.

*  *  *  *
Doing His Will
By Moti Lerner
Directed by Aya Kaplan
Habima National Theatre, Tel Aviv; 5 February 2018

First of all, go and see this play because it’s good theater and Aya Kaplan has done a great job on it. Second it impels you to think because politically-hearted playwright Moti Lerner has written a thoughtful and gripping drama that asks some uncomfortable questions about faith, belief and the question of religion in our lives.

Doing His Will is based on the true story of Esti Weinstein, born into Hassidut Gur, who left the sect for the secular world, wrote a book that opened a window to the Gur world and her experiences, yet later committed suicide, leaving a note that said in part “. . . time isn’t healing and the pain doesn’t stop.”

The drama moves back and forth in time and space, but essentially we meet Dassi (Osnat Fishman) at her wedding to Yaakov (Yoav Donat). The trouble starts with the wedding night. Though he continually turns to Rabbi Zilber (Igal Sade) for advice and instruction, he cannot perform, and the blame, naturally, is ascribed to Dassi. From there things go from bad to worse. Try as she will, Dassi cannot accommodate herself to what she perceives as the soul-destroying rules of Gur. She leaves for the secular life with one of her daughters, Gilli (Sivan Mast) divorces Yaakov and pays a dire price. She may not see or communicate with the other six.

All efforts to reverse that rabbinical ruling are in vain. So is life she decides. It is a week before she is found dead in her car.

The title is deliberately ambiguous. Is it ‘his’ or ‘His’ or both? And which is paramount? Jehudit Aharon’s understated set contributes to the ambiguity. Two tall brick walls bisected by a path are the backdrop. Are they protection or boundary? In the foreground on a platform facing one another are two single beds – and it is no coincidence that they resemble biers. Dori Parnes’ minor themes add poignancy – we could do without the ‘heavenly choirs’ though. Keren Granek’s lighting and Aviah Bash’s costumes meld seamlessly.

The secular Jewish world, whether or not it believes in a Deity, is at a disadvantage vis á vis the religious one, especially that of the ultra-orthodox whose passion we cannot fathom and whose way of life is often as alien to our understanding as a man from Mars. The guiding principle of Gur is Sanctity from which human sexuality detracts. Hence the very severe prohibitions regarding marriage and sexuality save those for biblically enjoined reproduction.

This is the world to which Yaakov adheres and which breaks Dassi. Lerner has not written an anti-religious polemic. Doing His Will is not about faith, or belief but about control. In his absolute obedience Yaakov becomes a robot. In her questioning the order of things Dassi becomes a rebel and therefore intolerable. Lerner is asking which way do we want and need to go, a question particularly apposite in a society whose government is moving swiftly towards fascism.

The acting is uniformly splendid. Fishson’s Dassi is powerful, passionate and touching. Donat’s Yaakov is not a bad man but one who is irretrievably torn between instinct and obedience. Sade’s omnipotent Zilber is as unyielding as granite but could use some human nuance. The ever excellent Orna Rothberg shines as Ahuva, Dassi’s torn mother, and Moti Gershon is gently tough as Dassi’s brother Haim who has also joined the secular world, become a lawyer and her advocate. Mast as Gilli must needs wear her courage visibly and as pregnant Hanni, Dassi’s eldest, Aurelle Maor is as visibly torn. Also, and as definitely, “don’t judge” says this play.

[As I observed in my afterword to “Dispatches 12,” the list of Helen’s past contributions to ROT has grown too long to append to new offerings.  I 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” (11 November 2016) for the dates of Helen’s posts—look down in the afterword—and add numbers 11 (17 June 2017) and 12 (27 October 2017).]

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