Final Weekend of IsraDrama

December 10-11 
So Saturday morning’s lively playwright’s session is followed by a long, intensive one-on-one chat with “our good friend” at the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Cultural Desk, an important advocate for strong theater programming emanating from Israel to travel the world.  And  it’s true that when we call her “our good friend” at the Foreign Ministry, we recognize that there others too who’ve been brought on board to champion our efforts, and true too that “our good friend” has gotten flack, more than once, for helping us bring over a strong nuclei of Israeli artists for productions like Pangs of the Messiah, The Accident, Mikveh, and a total of 11 Israelis for Return to Haifa — Astonishing governmental support for such gripping, tough-minded dramas.

But it’s also true that in 2008-09, as mentioned in a previous post, after we’d been shown the wonderful play Plonter at the 2007 IsraDrama, and by 2008, had made a commitment (and formal announcement) to bring over the Yaeli Ronen-created ensemble piece about life on both sides of The Wall, we waited and waited for the expected confirmation from the Foreign Ministry that they indeed would be providing support to cover “flight tickets” for the large delegation of cast and creative team, but (as I learn in the one-on-one chat) the Foreign Ministry balked, or changed its mind, or decided we needed to add an extra city to the tour to make it worthwhile, and, in the end, the production fell through; a set-back for all concerned at the time.  So we discuss what we’re thinking of producing next season and what the Ministry needs from us in order to help us continue to push the envelope artistically while still serving Israel’s cultural interests.  “Show more than one side,” she says — “Not only the one conflict. There are others.” Not a problem, I tell her. As we’ve done with Mikveh, The Accident, Iris Bahr’s Dai…  We mix it up; perspectives continually want to be enlarging; diversifying.

And yet, it’s a pointed reminder that this festival is being underwritten by a government agency; one dedicated to advancing Israel’s foreign policy interests.  And when we partner with the Embassy of Israel in DC, we’re partnering with a government entity dedicated to exactly the same.  Which is like partnering with the State Department, right?  Receiving government support is not unknown to American  cultural institutions, or American artists, is it?  Whether it be the NEA, a state Arts Council, or a District of Columbia Arts Commission; there’s plenty of private-governmental partnerships.  And the government doesn’t get involved in editorial content management.  Nor has it in Israel.  But we are being asked to broaden the portraiture.  Which is the kind of advice an artistic director gets all the time when programming timely, politically sensitive material.  All things to ponder…

I get back to the hotel in time to meet long-lost Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute friends (which is to say, camp friends), Hadas (but always Howie to me, my counselor) Levin and Karen Dickstein, who made Aliyah 30 years ago to the Kibbutz Yahel in the Arava and now live, empty-nesters, in Tel Aviv. We enjoy a long stroll across the city to the Tel Aviv “Namal,” or wharf, and catch up for a wonderful two hours.

Then it’s back to the Cameri for another author panel; this time with playwright-director Edna Mazya and comic playwright Anat Gov in advance of seeing Gov’s cancer comedy with music (you read that right) “Happy Ending” at the Cameri.  It turns out to be the most accomplished comedy of the festival so far, and a poignant bookend to the play that was Gov’s claim to fame 15 years ago — the play we read this past November 11 as part of our recent “Voices” reading series; Best Friends.

Here’s the write up of Gov’s latest:

“To be or not to be. That is not the question. The question is how to be”.  A new patient, Talia Roth, a theatre actress in her late forties, arrives at the outpatient department to begin a course of treatment aimed at prolonging her life. The encounter with the department’s longstanding women patients and the understanding of what’s in store for her, make her rethink how she would want to end her life. She reaches some surprising decisions, which rock the system that doesn’t know how to deal with her.  A musical fantasy on an unmentionable subject…

We spend much of the time on the women’s panel listening to Edna Mazya speak up for her playwright (Gov is shy, reclusive, perhaps a bit more challenged by English than other playwrights so far; or maybe just weakened by the cancer that she–like her character–is battling, without the intrusive aid of chemo or radiation) in a session that requires us to pay attention to a phenomenon that’s largely been undersold this festival: that the driving commercial force represented by Mazya, Gov, and the playwright/prose writer Savyon Leibrecht (whose latest play we’re to see after “Happy Ending”) is perhaps a little perplexing to the men who control so much of the theatrical discourse (and reigns of power) in Israel.   It’s women who are making money in the theater, for themselves and the institutions that produce them.  And the work?  How’s the work? Well, it’s funny; it’s emotional; and it cleverly, deftly touches upon tough issues but in, almost always, warm and humane ways.  The bottom line is–their work delivers–the female voice is both probing and comforting, and there’s both admiration and resentment for that accomplishment.  In considering the need to show multiple perspectives of the Israeli experience, it seems necessary that our theater commit to producing the work of a female Israeli playwright next season alongside that of a man.

Anat Gov, Noam Semel, and Edna Mazya

Although that play won’t be “Rochaleh’s Wedding,” Savyon Liebrecht’s over-extended adaptation of her much slimmer short story — which is nevertheless  a wildly popular production at the Hertzlia Performing Arts Center.  We’ve done readings of three other Savyon Liebrecht plays in previous “Voices” festivals and she’s a writer who marries  a European background (and the shadow of the shoah) with a strong sense of Israel as (still) a land of immigrants forging a new culture.  As we think about which Savyon play to produce (in English) for DC audiences first, we consider the two works we shared at the Embassy of Israel over the past two years; Apples From The Desert vs. I’m Speaking To You Chinese.  I’m liking the religious/secular conflicts coursing through Apples a bit more, (and all the more for its sweet yet unsentimental resolution), though Chinese is the more finely written piece, it seems. We’ll be thinking hard about these two popular plays in the coming weeks.

But on our final Saturday night in Israel, I cut out of the talk-back with the author to join the Swedish delegation as we cab to the Georgian restaurant “Nanushka” in the Florentine section of Tel Aviv, and we drink and dance — me and the six fabulous Swedes — until the wee hours.

On our final day, Sunday, we see The Sinners by the renowned playwright Joshua Sobol about a married woman buried up to her waist in a hole surrounded by sand, about to be stoned by an angry (off-stage) mob.  Her crime: an affair with a married man who’s confessed their sin to the Committee on Chastity.  His punishment:  to gather stones that will be used in her execution.  We’re in an unidentified country, but the Arabic music and the costumes — the woman wears a hijab — compel us to see the setting as any Islamic country where such barbaric punishments might still be meted out. 

Stephen Stern and Shirley Serostky from our delegation speak up after, finding some of the production choices to be too specific in their referencing of Muslim misogyny, thereby elminating the play’s metaphorical implications, as they might apply to other forms of fundamentalist misogyny.  The play’s text is loose and illusive and paints the affair of the heart and siren calls of temptation in broad strokes — the religious identity of “the sinners” implied but not necessarily specified by the text — though we’re meant to understand that the punishment invoked by the nameless government is both brutal and barbaric. Stephen points to the divisiveness of stoning as a punishment within the Muslim world; that there’s a fight within many Islamic countries to modernize themselves and eliminate such practices which the text ignores. The production is in danger of becoming an Israeli-authored screed against Islam in general, and the suggestion is made that the play would do better either in being more specific and nuanced in describing the conflict within Muslim society, or that it become more universal in discussing fundamentalism in general; not just singling out Islam.

Some within the Israeli sponsoring committee are upset that Theater J representatives are responding in such a “politically correct” fashion, suggesting that the Washingtonians “only like it when Joshua Sobol bashes Israel, but if he bashes Islamic countries, then they’re upset; we’re not supposed to show that!”  One seems to be particularly peeved at us, and doesn’t want to give much more benefit of the doubt that the positions articulated by Steve and Shirley are a more supple appreciation of the production’s ambitions — its virtues are its high stakes, emotional starkness, brilliant lead performance, and the simplicity of director Rina Yerushalmi’s presentation — but we seem to have something of an identity to live down here (thanks to our past presentations of Kanafani and Churchill) — that we’d “rather bash Israel than Islamo-fascism.”

Me?  I’m still wearing the effects of “Nanushka” from the wee morning hours, so I don’t partake in the debate to the same degree.  It’s a shame, in a way, that Sobol’s out of the country and can’t engage with us in this discussion.  The play’s about a primitive form of punishment and is employing a kind of primitive political presentation as well:  “Deal with this brutality in the Muslim world — it exists — qualifying be damned.”  And, as I share this, I’m reminded of the late Christopher Hitchens article we shared with TJ audiences on 9/11:

Simply Evil

A decade after 9/11, it remains the best description and most essential fact about al-Qaida.

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Smoke pours from the twin towers of the World Trade Center after they were hit by two hijacked airliners in a terrorist attack September 11, 2001 in New York City. Click image to expand.

“Did we over-complicate the meaning of 9/11?”  Here’s how Hitch began his article:

“The proper task of the “public intellectual” might be conceived as the responsibility to introduce complexity into the argument: the reminder that things are very infrequently as simple as they can be made to seem. But what I learned in a highly indelible manner from the events and arguments of September 2001 was this: Never, ever ignore the obvious either.”

(I actually began one of my two High Holiday talks this year at Washington Hebrew Congregation with the Hitchens piece as well, in what was, no doubt, one of the longer titles ever given to a drash — “The Dramatist’s Moral Response & Responsibility; Looking at the Looming Traumas of Madoff, McCarthyism–and Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust–in the works Miller, Margolin, Uhry & Brown.”)

Again, things to ponder, as we move onto the festival’s closing events.