Saturday, May 26, 2007

Shalom from Israel

Posted by Billy Christopher Maupin

I sit here on Saturday night in Tel Aviv, Israel. It is my last night in this country halfway across the world. It has been a very interesting month. I've learned a lot about Israel and well...many other things that have nothing to do with the purpose of this blog. So I will plow forth since I promised that I would blog about theatre in Israel while here.

I've also attempted the read the complete works of Aristophanes while here, but I got these really bad translations called "The New Translations," so I haven't even made it through one. Perhaps someday. I've been fairly successful with learning my lines for the new musical that I start rehearsing at the Firehouse upon my return to Richmond.

Theatre and arts here are really thriving. At first, I found it to be very similar to New York City, but without the frenetic tendencies. Things seem to be much more relaxed here.

The Theatre

I've seen four shows while here this month in Israel--all four in Hebrew, two of which I read in English translation. Watching the other two, I had NO CLUE what was going on other than what my partner was translating by whispering in my ear on occasion during the performance.

The first show I was is called The Timekeepers. It's by Dan Clancy and had a limited run last year Off-Broadway. I lucked out, since the young woman we were subletting the apartment from was a director at one of the "fringe theatres" in Tel Aviv. So I got to see this show for 5 shekels. (That's about $1.25!!!) $1.25 for a fantastic production.

The Timekeepers takes place in a concentration camp during WWII. There's a straight Jewish man and a homosexual. The Jewish man works on watches; the homosexual claims to work on watches as well, so he won't go directly to the gas chambers. It seems somewhat similar to The Kiss of The Spider Woman by Manuel Puig ( I know the play more so than the novel, the movie, or the musical [which starred Chita Rivera in the title role and later Vanessa Williams, which merited a new cast recording...umm...ok?]). Except that in Spider Woman, the straight man and the gay man become lovers at the end; it's really such a beautiful play.

Here, however, they bond over their love of opera (yes, the Jewish man really is straight) and become strong friends. It's a very touching piece. When I was talking to the director about it reminding me of Spider Woman, she pointed out that there's now almost a genre of plays, including Bent by Martin Sherman, which I find to be a not-quite-good play. Again, I found it interesting to see this in Israel, but it is a fringe theatre and Lee (the director/landlady) did point out that just like in the States, they wish there would be more fringe theatres, but there's not the audience to support them. And, just like in the States, it made me sad.

Something very exciting that I learned about theatre in Israel, though, is that more people go to the theatre than go to soccer games. That would be like more Americans going to the theatre than to baseball games!!! How cool is that!

The next show that I saw was Minchausen. There are these Israeli stories about this guy who told these crazy stories, such as discovering the 32nd of May! These stories are like Babar the Elephant or Peter Cottontail. So someone decided to write a play about this guy and his attempt to divorce his wife to marry the young girl he's in love with.

Sounds like a great idea, huh? Yes! But not so much in the execution of the show. Granted, this is one of the two that I hadn't been able to get a translation of since it's an Israeli play and not yet translated into English. I did get a little excited at the beginning though because the play had Russian! This theatre (one of the Broadway-equivalent theatres) was started by Russian Jewish immigrants. I'm told that it wasn't just the language barrier that made me think it wasn't a very good script. It just wasn't. The leading actor, though, pictured on the right, was fantastic! He's a big star of stage and screen. Many of the big actors in Israel are crossovers, much like several in the U.S. and Britain (Judi Dench, Ian McKellan, Liev Schreiber, Kevin Spacey, Julia Roberts...ouch...wait a minute). The woman playing his wife was also really incredible. Very funny! Her comedic timing would have felt right at home in the States. The actress playing the girl he was trying to marry, on the other hand, (seen in the middle) seemed like she was playing Ophelia or Antigone. "Honey, you're in a comedy for Pete's sake!" I wanted to tell her. So overall, not the hit of the season, but some fine acting from a few people.

Here, I will note that 'night, Mother by Marsha Norman is one of my favorite plays--a really fantastic Pulitzer Prize-winning piece from 1983, recently revived on Broadway with Brenda Blethyn and Edie Falco (the original starred Kathy Bates; the movie features Anne Bancroft and Sissy Spacek). I was thrilled to see that there was a production playing with English subtitles at another of the Broadway-equivalent theatres. But I got the dates confused and missed it. Heartbroken. It doesn't play anytime within the next two months. (Everything runs in repertory here in Tel Aviv.)

Then I saw another play directed by Lee Gilat (our landlady). In the original British version, the play is called The Boys of Summer, but because that has connotations in English that it doesn't carry in Hebrew, the adaptation is called The Little Green Monkey Club.

It's a comedy that takes place in a hospice about four guys with AIDS. It was one of the first successful plays to deal with the subject and one of the only ones to do so as a comedy. Great play, two of the same actors from The Timekeepers, some really fantastic actors in this production.

This brings me to the final play that I saw, just two days ago, Thursday night, another of the Broadway-caliber theatres. This play was written and directed by my friend Ravid Davara.
Crumbs by Ravid Davara was by far the most unique piece I saw the month I was in Israel. The plot involves two sisters, Carmella and Frida (played by one of the most breathtakingly brilliant actresses I've ever seen) who run a bakery and a coffee shop, respectively, and their husbands, Aharon and Aleeko.

"A story of two sisters, Carmela and Frida, drifted apart because of an old dark family secret. Carmela, the older one, a bakery manager widow, is trying to get close to Frida, the latter does not reciprocate, solely focused on her hopes to see her son returning from his long trip to the Far East. Frida's husband, who is concerned for his wife but also for Carmela, wishes to revive the link between the sisters. Frida continues to wait for the return of her disappearing son, while the mystery around his disappearance is slowly revealed. Carmella, whose husband's death is also shrouded in mystery, is slowly collapsing under the weight of her guilt, trying to get closer to her sister, begging for forgiveness." Aharon, Carmela's husband is dead, but she still sees him and talks to him. He appears by "walking through the wall," the stage direction in the script indicates.

Ravid has melded together realism and absurdism. Carmela bakes loaves and loaves of her late husband's bread recipe and stacks them in the bakery. Sometimes she climbs up the stacks of these loaves to reach him and once collapses and lies on them. She also gifts Frida constantly with chocolate bunnies, which Frida doesn't eat, but rather uses to fill the shelves of the coffee shop.

So that's my experience with theatre in Israel. I'm very ready to be back working on theatre myself. There are so many wonderful things in Israel! So much history! And some incredible theatre! Now if only we could have more Americans going to the theatre than baseball games!!!

--Billy Christopher Maupin


Bruce Miller said...

Billy-Christopher will be pleased to know that every study, poll and/or statistic that's out there indicate that more Americans attend performing arts events than sports events, during any year, hands down. Do more Americans attend theatre than baseball? You bet! By a large margin.

billy-christopher said...

I stand delightfully corrected! That's incredible! I had no idea!

Bruce Miller said...

I loved reading B-C's coverage of Israeli theatre. Thanks, B-C! Great job!

To add a source to my previous comment, an extensive national survey conducted in 2002 by Americans for the Arts found that 41% of the U. S. population attended an arts event during the previous year, while 37% attended a professional or amateur sporting event. The arts are very popular in our nation, and that's good news indeed.