As The Accident Dresses… With an essay from Professor Shimon Levy

It’s invited dress rehearsal tonight — now we’re going cue-to-cue. The production is asking itself a number of technical questions:

– How much haze to use for the top of the show and the rain-filled, wind-swept night?  (answer: 5 minutes worth)

– How many images to project during the direct address monologues so that they don’t distract — but so that they also remain interesting and worth-doing? (answer: a lot fewer than Sunday night’s tech run!)

– If there’s environmental/ambient sound during the rain-filled,  wind-swept night, do we need other ambient sound for the 5 AM coming home scene (like crickets? Or a rooster?)  (answer: no!)

– Does music anticipate the end of scenes as it did on Sunday night?  (answer: no!)

Adjustments, changes, tweaks, refinements… that’s the name of the game in rehearsals this week as we prepare for previews, and respond to the results we see on stage – and feedback from the audience – with more adjustments, solidifications, practice-practice…

All of Washington is waking up the fact that almost nobody rehearsed at the end of December – and that we all began rehearsals after New Year, during the first week in January. Which means we’re all opening this week!  Every major theater’s competing for critics and audience and we’re realizing, all of a sudden, we’re gonna have press scattered over a number of previews and post-opening performances, not just Sunday night’s opening (which is also Ford’s Theatre’s grand re-opening and the world premiere of THE HEAVEN’S ARE HUNG IN BLACK.) We’ll be trying to draw good, supportive, young audiences to Saturday night, Sunday afternoon, Sunday night and next Wednesday night’s performances. Plenty of RUSH tix and Pay-What-You-Can preview tix are available!

We’re really happy to be a full team now that playwright Hillel Mitelpunkt has arrived from Tel Aviv. He joins the Israeli designers Hannah Hakohen (who was with us for Pangs of the Messiah) and Gili Cochavi who join hard-driving director Sinai Peter (director of Pangs of the Messiah) who’s invested such energy, such imagination in bringing this sexy morality play to life.

But here’s the thing: With all these distinguished visitors in town, the over-extended press is too busy to interview any of them!  No Washington Post interviews with Hillel or Sinai.  Jane Horwitz’s plate is too full, plus she just profiled Iris Bahr. We can’t get a call-back from the Style section or the Weekend section. And so it brings to mind the recent articles in Haaretz about new calls for a US academic boycott of Israeli scholars and cultural institutions because of the Gaza actions. Is that, in fact, what we’re seeing? Washington press indifference to our Israeli talent standing for something more than just seasonal over-extension? What do our readers think?

(Of course not!  There’s no boycott!  Bob Mondello’s always mad at Israel; there’s nothing special now!  Plus the fact, or more to the point, Bob Mondello doesn’t do features!  Who does?  The field of arts journalism continues to constrict before our very eyes!)

It’s frustrating, of course, to have a potent and pungent new show and not be able to get advance word of it out. And even when we do open, we still don’t have the press in the seats and so news of our performance is further delayed. But even without the megaphone of the press, we have to believe that in building a compelling show with a potent metaphor and searing performances, we’ve got something that will find an audience. Like HONEY BROWN EYES, the play reflects what we do best.

But for an even more compelling case for the show, let’s finally share this article from Israel.  This past summer, we asked Israel’s pre-eminent theater scholar, Dr. Shimon Levy, to translate his piece from the program of the Beit Lessin theater’s hit production of THE ACCIDENT back in 2003 in Tel Aviv. We re-print the article here with his permission.

The Accident in Israel

© Shimon Levy

The Accident opens with the words “A fox? A hyena?” directly after somebody has been run over by a car; and, immediately, the spectators too, not only the characters in the play, find themselves in an inescapable crisis. It was not a fox but a human being who has been killed, and hyenas which is also used to mean “hypocrites” in Hebrew, are the perpetrators, not the victim. The actual message of the piece is hidden in the play-within-the-play, within the film that Adam, one of the characters, is directing: “His film dealt with our evaporated dreams, with our language that turned into filth and with us, and what we have become: faceless people, meek shadows, sad and bereft of faith…”

The Accident is indeed a pessimistic play about hypocritical Israelis who lack the courage for inward change – not only before what they perceive as a lurking calamity, but even in its midst. Four characters, Adam, a film director and lecturer, his wife Nira who works in the Inheritance Department, Lior the PR man, and his wife Tami, a Strategic Expert, live a life replete with lies. Even the moral freshness of their daughter Shiri, a student, can not revive these desiccated dead-of-the deserts. Their life-long collection of bluffs, their betrayals and mutual infidelities shatter one by one following the accident, because, as the Hebrew saying goes, “lies float”. The naïveté ascribed to the first pioneering period of the settlement in the country will never return. The Accident reveals a nostalgic vein, a kind of recognition concerning the present, and a veiled, unfriendly future – all of which invite the fabrication of fond memories for a past that may not have ever existed to begin with. Mittelpunkt does not really rely on the past but, rather, assumes that it must have been better.

In his play the idealistic, perhaps romantic past is conjured up by itself, as if whispering “once our dreams had a good chance, once our political acts were not ‘irregular’ and our language was not forced to white-wash them.”

Adam, Tami and Lior, with the latter driving under the influence of alcohol, are returning from a New Year’s Eve party. They hit a Chinese worker, but instead of reporting the accident to the police they simply drive away, because “he’s just a fuckin’ Chinaman”, and Lior must catch an early flight to Barcelona to deliver an important presentation. The accident, as in many other plays of this genre, has a clear dramatic function: it extends to the characters a temporal hiatus, a rare opportunity to re-evaluate the meaning of their lives. In real life too accidents may lead to shock, demanding vision and revision, perhaps a rearrangement of one’s biography after the passing of years without any moral or emotional accounting to ourselves of what had truly “happened”. “Whatever happened to us, happened”, it says in this play dealing with “an accident”: namely, rather than what should have “happened”, following thought, responsibility and accountability, genuine human rights instead of righteousness, respect for truth, for “the other”, whether Chinese, Palestinian or (even) Israeli. Accidents do not happen. They are caused, Mittelpunkt clearly implies.

He presents an individual who took the unimportant (to him) life of a foreign Chinese worker, because he was driving while drunk, because Adam too was drunk, because Tami was not paying attention, because some Chinese in Israel don’t have a work permit, because “he’s illegal, not registered anywhere”, nobody will ever miss him. This metaphorical Chinese in The Accident could easily be substituted by a homeless Russian immigrant in Tel Aviv, an old lady in a hospital corridor, 40 injured Palestinians from Gaza, and many of the other poor and deprived Israelis whose lives count for “less”.
Adam, as a documentary film-maker and lecturer, talks about fiction but creates new realities. The documentary genre is certainly problematic, as The Accident itself shows, since presenting “the truth as is” is in fact yet another manipulation: “Change the story a little, round the edges a bit”, Adam is told. The play includes a “mouse- trap” scene, in which four soldiers abuse an old Arab.

The one soldier who reports this despicable act is humiliated by his friends, and will consequently commit suicide. In the play, the Israeli Army is subsidizing the film to be shot about the event, in order to contend that there are only four bad guys, “but the others, they’re OK, the IDF’s OK and the occupation is OK… Eh?”

If Adam, as in Shakespeare’s original Mouse Trap (based on The Poor Man’s Ewe in II Sam. 12:1-4), exchanges reality for fiction and hides behind Hamletian-scruples but refrains from a real moral act, Lior exchanges ethical behavior for a blunt utilitarian approach in order to save his skin. Mittelpunkt has made him a PR agent, thus turning corporations and trademarks into a notion of “quality of life”, ironically suggesting that it is the image alone, rather than the essence, that counts, and using a few image-making terms such as “Global Village”, “A Better World of Bumper Shoes”.

Lior and Tami will not be redeemed from one another by marriage councilors, or even by their newly-adopted baby. Both are replaceable, un-authentic “substitute people”, profoundly corrupt. A thousand psychologists can not extinguish this moral fire, since the characters in The Accident have retreated from the ethical realm to the seemingly safe harbor of psychology. In a sophisticated world, leaning heavily on image, PR and virtual realities, psyche-treatments – Mittelpunkt implies – dwarf the real problem and make it subjective: “I’m being treated, ergo I’m not responsible”, is the world of those Israelis whose language is filthy and whose acts are “irregular” – in itself a euphemism for racist, criminal and horrendous. The original “Thou shalt not murder” was not a relative-subjective or psychological commandment. Tami, an expert working in an institute for strategic research, says one thing, but through her Mittelpunkt means something else. For example, it is the Chinese, one of whom has so recently been killed, who invented the rocket, a smart rocket “entering inside a house, every house, smashing it, evaporating it”. Tami tries to relativize the event. Nira, however, as head of the “inheritance” department at the university, is dramatically responsible for extricating from floods and forgetfulness that which is vitally important: fraternity, humanity, as she says, but never really “does”.
Shiri apparently represents a naïve hope for a better, slightly braver new world, because she will eventually find her way to China so as to modestly correct a great evil. But Mittelpunkt is poking fun at his (Israeli, at least) audiences, with this naïve solution. The Accident is not merely about four Israelis believing they are OK. It also exposes a section of the moderate well-to-do Israeli left-wing liberal theater-goers, who, in (oblivious?) self-deception, get along wonderfully with one another, lacking, as the playwright suggests, any basic decency and unknowingly suffering from the Occupation’s mental and moral poisoning. Through this intentionally TV-like melodrama Mittelpunkt scratches at wounds without specifying easy targets. Israeli commercial theater nowadays is well attended by news-exhausted audiences from the very center of the political consensus, frail as it is. They are not to be overly disturbed by explicit messages; but you can still gently indicate that whoever lives falsely – will pay the price.

The Accident shoots rubber bullets that are not supposed to kill, only to warn us. It buries the explosions, killings and destruction of houses deep beneath the symbolic death of an “unimportant” Chinese worker. Betrayal, however, is clearly nearby; attrition, as Nira says, resulting from the “small floods”. The play deals with the dust that settles after a large explosion; with the cancer that results from moral fall-out.