Isra-Drama Finale from Stephen Stern

Part 2 of Stephen’s posting… (see here posting #1)

Ari (on the shoulders of Jennifer’s and Shirley’s postings) has provided a comprehensive look at rich theatrical connection, discussions, and “controversies” at Isra-Drama. The controversies on gender voice, on Israel perpetually “under siege” were an important key to unlocking the rich slices of life, the Israeli portraiture in full that were the great gift given to festival participants by the Israeli theatrical community and their Foreign Ministry co-sponsors. So I offer some paragraphs on the feelings of Israeliness conveyed — and themes that leapt out at me from the first few shows (and in my later favorites). First the particular — and perhaps universal — nature of the Israeli male stemming from a century of struggle to re-build this nation and then, the living legacy of the past in the here and now.

The pre-official festival opening bonus production at the newly renovated Habimah was Shlomo Moskovich’s Kohav Yair, to me a perfect cultural entry point. We see three males living in remote village proximity — a blocked and cynical writer, his war-crippled (physically and emotionally) son, and the cashiered (for offenses against the enemy) military officer neighbor (living out distance and rage against his despairing historian wife). The torn, often crudely macho, and self-absorbed, but when certain push comes to certain kind of shove — passionately, introspective Israeli male was on full display. To compound and deepen the soap opera excess, enters an alluring blonde Ukrainian nurse sent by the government to look after the injured son. We find she has a past of being sexually abused, a victimhood overcome to become a healer — here it plays out as sexual temptress upsetting and dominating the phallo-centric neighborhood — with her also introducing dollops (she is clearly not a Jew) of Jewish mysticism, compassion and a game of definitions in the Hebrew language. The acting was passionate, though the staging a bit inert and the one to one connection of characters sometimes thwarted — but I sensed that the language (understood by me in translated English sur-titles) soared through the cliches and stereotypes, the extremely “over the top” character situations – into profound struggle for human relief from — and through– identity. Focusing here, especially on the male, I felt inklings of historical legacy passed down from generation to generation, 100 years of gathering refugees, building family, building a nation with the shadow (and the reality) of conflict and loss always hovering and forming the national and individual soul.

The next night in Hillel Mittelpunkt’s Grocery Store, at the Cameri we took in a different slice of historical legacy. Veteran actors, lovingly and cuttingly portraying an extended and multi-generational family of survivors and refugees from Germany as they attempt to “move on up” into the dawning 1970s (to the paradise of Bat Yam!) from the grocery store they own and inhabit in Jaffa. The lying to each other, the selfishness, the loving and desperate holding together of family — the higher art of Jewish and Israeli bickering — seen from the here and now of 2011, a lot more than nostalgia going on. The family’s dreams of advancement were built on the illusion of a straightforward claim to German reparations money. Instead they found themselves once more a kind of refugee, having sold cheap their Jaffa store, without the expected means to ascend to Bat Yam. The young 20 something male (possibly Israeli-born) lazy and extremely put upon as he works in the store is the family’s son. He steals from the store and lavishes money on his illusion, a “glamorous” young woman former fellow classmate who will marry elsewhere. He runs off from the family in disgrace and anger, yet there is a hint of a new Israel aborning and he returns to join his parents as they and their possessions are “exiled” from the store. Instead of indulging in one his wild fantasies, he had gone off and worked somewhere (perhaps in the emerging nearby Bat Yam or Holon which would undergo such growth in the coming decades of entrepreneurial boom) and returned to pay off the debt of his theft and head to the next place of refuge (or more) with his parents.

So, the next morning another “bonus” production, something I had seen several years ago in DC — but was pleased to re-visit in more intimate “environmental” setting of a performance for Israeli drama and literature students — The Cameri’s Hamlet. Not a play about Israeli society — yet a tragedy with eloquent echoes and whispers of what is at stake. It was a production rendered more brilliant for me by seeing its verve and youth in a go-go Tel Aviv setting. Women and men brought down by primordial male conflict – the primal ancient curse, to kill a brother (in-law) — and bring on a psycho-sexual and societal whirlwind. And this Hamlet, a young appealing ball of energy — dynamic, yet introspective and torn, and ultimately savage and despairing and capable only of revenge and self-destruction.

And on to the healing arts of looking at controversy with poetic, theatrical imagination. Packed into a small theater in Haifa, where they had mis-handled the seating and I was forced to the very top row next to the set of computers and technicians, who were handling the sur-titles and all the cues for Gilad Evron’s Ulysses on Bottles. Within a few minutes, I caught the eye of the very helpful woman standing right practically on top of me and orchestrating the technicians (I thought she was the stage manager, she turned out to be the director), and with a big grin let her know this is exactly what I’ve come here for. It’s been described elsewhere on these blogs — on one more inevitable box set — but with doors opening on eloquently depicted portrayals of the Israeli here and now. One area a prison where the central Israeli character (is he is Palestinian? is he Jewish? you find out but it scarcely matters) is held for building a raft of bottles to sail into Gaza in order to teach the lessons of Russian literature. Another one opening on that prototypical Israeli male — but this one supremely articulate and intellectually introspective, a security or state official — talking Gaza policy, with graphs and charts, and puppets, and interrogating our prisoner and his profound poetic angle on life. Other doors open on the human rights and shyster lawyers, wives and husbands in their daily give and take — returning always to this prisoner locked in his cell and his poetic soul. The acting and directing on Bottles were both brilliant, and the same core team of Khalifa Natour (he played the prisoner nicknamed “Ulysses”) and Ofira Henig (the director) presented us Taher Najib’s In Spitting Distance performed at Haifa’s Arabic Theater al-Midan in Arabic. The incisive portraiture of a Palestinian’s reflections and travails as he tries to travel internationally to and through Israel on the 9/11 anniversary was a bursting forth of rich, direct minimalism that was riveting.

All praise for our hosts for sharing these outstanding entry points into the artistry of contemporary Israel, and for the many other plays (for me twelve in six days) that traversed the decades of Israeli life. I would be remiss in not adding just a little to the excellent account that Ari provided of the controversy I seem to have sparked with my comments that led to quite a post-show discussion after viewing Sobol’s Sinners. I started with a dramatugical questioning to which I did not have an answer for this vividly produced (if maybe over-wordy) extra-ordinarily gripping play. The passions depicted were all around a central horrifying image that we know from media portrayals as something existing in the Muslim world. Yet the tribal sources, the meanings, the contesting of stoning within the Muslim world — the reality of this phenomena were very murkily portrayed indeed, actually not at all.

How to resolve — more specificity or more generalizing of context — I don’t know. But it was a question of public presentation made even more urgent, by the barely spoken in our discussion reality that this was a Jewish-Israeli depiction being offered to tour internationally. A good give and take in discussion was had (including with the Artistic Director of the theater who was not on the panel, but in the row in front of me) — and I had several good follow-ups with Israeli cultural hosts on how my “dramaturgical” opinion provoked attacks on my “political correctness.” (A candidate for best not on-stage drama was me washing myhands in the men’s room as an Israeli official walked in and castigated me for “loving Sobol when he bashes Israel” — I actually don’t know those plays and look forward to them — ” but let him touch your beloved Muslims…” I have to respect his addressing me directly and then spending 10 minutes responding to my impassioned, righteous defence. He seemed only slightly moved.) It’s not the first time I’ve encountered this sensitivity. Although I think it was — at least initially — crudely expressed… it’s not trivial. I hope that I, and the theater that we love will continue to use our mobility and willingness to depict all aspects of life of Israelis and their neighbors. I hope we use these depictions to deepen the connection to an Israel that we love and must hear from and speak to with all of our hearts. Thank you Ari, thank you Theater J and world colleagues, thank you Israeli artists and officials for this opportunity to contribute.

One thought on “Isra-Drama Finale from Stephen Stern

  1. Just to acknowledge that without Stephen Stern’s contributions and those of a half dozen other Theater J Council members, there wouldn’t have been a Theater J delegation to IsraDrama. So allow me to thank Marion and Larry Lewin, Elaine Reuben, Patti and Jerry Solwalsky, Margot and Paul Zimmerman, Al Munzer, Debbie Carline and Robert Remes, and Theatre Lab alum Richard Fiske who, along with Stephen and Margaret, contributed to the travel fund to allow Shirley Serotsky to represent Theater J’s Literary Department, while providing partial support both for Associate Artist in Residence Jennifer Mendenhall’s travel and that of my own. We’re grateful to our community, and grateful all the more to the conveners and the underwriters of IsraDrama for their wonderful hosting, and for making our stay at the Hotel Cinema such a pleasant and enjoyable week.

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