Our “Voices” Reading Series Kicks off at The Embassy of Israel: Spotlight on Savyon Liebrecht

A hundred and thirty attendees came to Theater J’s first of six special events in conjunction with our current Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival. They came to hear two full-length plays (each excerpted down to 50 minutes) by veteran Israeli author Savyon Liebrecht, presented by a wonderful cast of DC actors (Eliza Bell, Aubrey Deeker, Laura Giannarelli, Kathryn Kelley, Paul Morella, and Michael Tolaydo, directed by Kasi Campbell). Below are my opening remarks, in advance of MIKVEH playwright Hadar Galron’s personal reflections of Savyon Liebrecht’s work.

Notes for Spotlight on Savyon Liebrecht — May 10, 2010

Last night we enjoyed a rousing opening night performance of our 2010 Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival anchor production of MIKVEH, a production made possible by the Embassy of Israel, the National Endowment for the Arts, and some of Theater J’s most devoted Producing Angels, some of whom are here tonight.

We want to thank Sarit Arbell in particular for inviting us to be here tonight, opening up the doors of this Embassy and welcoming Theater J back. We’ve been here before, several times over the past dozen years with play-readings, solo performance artists, and panel discussions on trends in Israeli theater, no time more memorable than in March 2003 when we read four one-act plays by Israeli artists including a 17 page play called The Demonstration – by a lovely, promising 38 year old Israeli writer, Elisheva Greenbaum, who wrote of two sisters separated by politics—one a lefty, one more right—who find their way back to each other when a daughter doesn’t call home in the terrifying minutes after a bus explodes in Jerusalem. The impact of the play reading within these walls of Jerusalem Hall that day, with fresh echoes of the Intifada, and suicide bus bombings fresh in everyone’s mind, was transportive, devastating, touching, unforgettable.

Elisheva died 18 months later, on December 31, 2004 just a few weeks short of her 40th birthday of brain cancer. She was a unique figure in Israeli theatrical circles, bridging many worlds. Her American-Israeli upbringing gave her a unique perspective on the Israeli experience and how to share it with the world. We remembered on our stage, and we remember her now 5 and a half years later and dedicate this festival celebrating Kol Isha, Voice of the Woman, to her.

This year’s festival showcases three generations of contemporary female playwright working in Israel.
And it’s high time for such a focus, wouldn’t we say?

The male voice has dominated Israel’s literary, cinematic and theatrical exports, even as the domestic reality finds Israeli female artists holding more than their own on both the commercial and critical fronts.

Three of the most successful playwrights in Israel today are represented in our festival:
– Mikveh, for example, ran for 6 years in the Beit Lessin production, winning Best Play of the Year Award in 2004
– Edna Mazya. whose GAMES IN THE BACKYARD is the most produced drama in Israeli history, will be presented next Monday, May 17 at TJ.
And tonight’s featured author, Savyon Liebrecht, whose work we’ll celebrate tonight (and whose biography you can read about it in your program).

We begin with Savyon because her seminal play, APPLES FORM THE DESERT based on her famous short story, is a forbearer, in so many ways, to MIKVEH; and it forms a seamless link between our mainstage production and the launch of this play-reading reading series. Liebrecht dissects the temperature of the Israeli religious family and the fissures and fractures therein with a finely calibrated thermometer, and a broad paint brush as well. It’s an artful, populist blend.

The second play we’ll be excerpting tonight is another kindred play; a cousin, if you will. THE BANALITY OF LOVE tells the same story we told in 2005, of Hannah and Martin, those philosophical lovebirds and later ideological adversaries – an endlessly fascinating relationship kept alive by books, volumes of letters, including a new critical study reviewed just yesterday in the New York Times Book Review. We meet Liebrecht’s Hannah Arendt at a much later stage than we ever did in Kate Fodor’s dramatization at Theater J. Here, we’ll meet her at the end of her life, after the publication of her infamous and trailblazing book, and here, her complicated relationship with the state of Israel and the Jewish People is explored.

It’s so important that we’re able to present a portrait of that wrestling within these walls, on sovereign Israeli soil. We show the best of our culture when we present it fully voiced, fully engaged, candid and unafraid to articulate the truth. We take inspiration from Hannah Arendt, in her fierce intellectual analysis, as we take equal inspiration from Savyon Liebrecht and her sensitive, artful literary creations.

Before we begin tonight, I want to thank the actors – Theater J regulars all, veterans of past festivals – and thank our director Kasi Campbell.

The special treat tonight, before we begin, is a few words from our Isaeli playwright in residence this month, who like Savyon Liebrecht, has seen her work shine at the Beit Lessin Theater. I want to welcome the playwright of MIKVEH, Hadar Galron, to say a few words about her colleague.