Late last month, leading theater artists, producers and critics from 23 countries arrived in Tel Aviv for a six-day festival of Israeli plays. Organized by the Institute of Israeli Drama, the IsraDrama Festival brought together these international guests to attend productions, lectures and symposia on Israeli theater and to build future artistic collaborations.
“So often Israel’s image in the world is not positive,” said the festival’s artistic director, Nurit Yaari, a theater arts professor at Tel Aviv University. “It’s very important that people see that even in the midst of this situation, the theater makes it possible for us to hear different voices.”
Israel has a thriving and unique theater culture. Figures from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization rate Israel as one of the leading countries in the world in spectator numbers per capita. It is a country of around 6 million, and it sells an astounding 4 million theater tickets a year. “Israelis love the theater,” said Gad Kaynar, who, like Yaari, is a professor of theater arts at Tel Aviv University. “On any given evening, one can watch in Tel Aviv alone no less than 40 theater performances.” With this kind of wide and diverse audience in attendance, the theater plays an important role in Israel as a public forum where artists and audiences come together to discuss the social and political situation in a critical light.
Many of the festival guests were amazed not only by the variety and popularity of the theater, but also by the vibrant and open culture of artistic collaboration as seen through the daring and provocative political plays presented at the main state-subsidized public theaters. Jelena Mijovic, dramaturge at the Atelje 212 theater in Belgrade, said: “There are many similarities between Serbia and Israel. We, too, have suffered through violent religious and ethnic conflicts. It is an inspiration to see how Palestinian and Jewish Israeli theater artists are finding ways to form partnerships and create critical and relevant theater for a broad audience.” British theater critic Irving Wardle commented, “What I brought away from the festival was that no matter how hopeless that country’s situation seems from outside its borders, the fact that such theater, such dialogue across the boundaries, takes place proves co-existence as a fact, and one with huge potential to expand into other areas of national life.”
A number of the festival productions were performed with some scenes in Hebrew and others in Arabic. There were English subtitles and alternating Hebrew and Arabic subtitles. The most powerful bilingual play was the Cameri Theatre’s production of “Plonter,” or “Tangle,” which was created by director Yael Ronen and a company of nine Israeli actors — five Jews and four Arabs. “Plonter” introduces the audience to several Israeli and Palestinian characters through short scenes of family life that deftly juxtapose hilarious satirical dialogue and finely executed physical comedy with agonizing scenes of brutality and mourning. A festival guest from Germany asked how “Plonter” has been received by various Israeli audiences. Actress Raida Adon answered: “The Jewish audience members complain that our play is anti-Israeli, and the Palestinian audience members claim our play is anti-Palestinian. So we feel like we must be doing something right.” The bill of striking bilingual productions continued with the Arab-Hebrew Theatre of Jaffa’s hauntingly staged production of “Winter at Qalandia,” based on the novel by Lia Nirgad and adapted and directed by Nola Chilton. Next was Project Rukab’s excellent production of Taher Najib’s “In Spitting Distance.” In this blackly humorous monodrama directed by Ofira Henig, actor Khalifa Natour gives a virtuosic performance as a Palestinian actor with Israeli citizenship. Ellada Evangelou, dramaturge of the Rooftop Theatre Group in Cyprus, was impressed by these collaborative productions. “My theater group also works with bi-communal groups, but rather than performing in both Turkish and Greek, English has become our common language,” she said. “It’s beautiful that the actors here learn to speak each other’s language and are also free to express themselves in their own language onstage.”
Political theater has long been prevalent in Israel, while plays on the family are, according to director and actor Oded Kotler, a relatively new genre. “It’s these new family dramas, which reveal the intimate details of our daily life, that are shocking to us,” Kotler said. Many of these domestic dramas are both critically acclaimed and wildly popular with Israeli audiences. The Beit Lessin Theater’s production of Savyon Liebrecht’s “Apples in the Desert” provided an insightful portrayal of Israeli family life through the story of religious Sephardic Jewish parents whose only daughter runs away to live on a secular kibbutz. Liebrecht’s elegant and subtle characterizations explore one of the central tensions within Israeli society from an intensely personal perspective. Other popular plays in this genre — such as Beit Lessin’s “The Indian Patient” by Reshef and Regev Levi, about an elderly father’s deterioration following a stroke and his son’s terminal cancer — seemed no different from the myriad of similar contemporary melodramas playing on stages in parts of Europe and the United States.
On the opposite spectrum of the popular family dramas were several fringe productions. Director Henig and poet Shimon Bouzaglo’s “Black Rain,” presented by the Herzliya Theater Ensemble, was a thought-provoking and superbly staged meditation on the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The Tmuna Theatre, an interdisciplinary cultural center whose name means “moving picture,” composed a collage of excerpts from its eclectic repertory. When asked whether the Tmuna Theatre’s productions managed to resonate with a broad Israeli audience, dramaturge Lilach Dekel-Avneri answered, “This is a cosmopolitan theater” geared toward a Tel Aviv-based and international audience. With its goal of reaching an audience outside Israel, the current fringe focuses heavily on creating novel aesthetic visions and forms. While certainly not lacking in talent or interesting visual presentation, much of this experimental scene seems lacking in local relevance and heart, and looks vaguely similar to much of the fringe work now touring the international festival circuit.
Two highlights of IsraDrama were “Requiem” and “Yakish and Poupché,” both written by the late poet and playwright Hanoch Levin. Considered by many to be Israel’s national playwright, Levin bestrides several genres and defies categorization. Starting in 1967, at the euphoric height of victory following the Six Day War, Levin began writing cutting satirical reviews and directing them in small cabarets around Tel Aviv. As Kaynar notes, Levin “did not shrink from slaughtering the most sacred cows of the Israeli collective value system: from the idealization of the ‘justified war’ to the sanctification of land at the expense of life and ethics.” In 1970, the Cameri Theatre’s production of Levin’s “Queen of the Bathtub” caused riots, and cast members received violent threats. In his later works Levin wrote stylized domestic comedies, followed by a series of philosophical and existential plays that Yaari has termed “spectacles of doom.” The productions presented in the festival are considered part of these latter works. The brilliant Russian émigré director Yevgeny Arye has created a delightful and sinister world in his adaptation of Levin’s “Yakish and Poupché,” playing at Gesher Theatre. Yevgeny, who founded Gesher in the early 1990s, worked with his exceptionally talented resident company of Russian immigrant and Israeli-born actors and designers to create this dark comedy with music that combines circus and fantasy. The Cameri Theatre’s production of Levin’s “Requiem,” which Levin also directed, has remained in the repertory since 1999. The lyrical simplicity of the language, the inventive minimalist set design, the evocative music, and the remarkable performance of Yosef Carmon and the entire cast make this fairytale about death, based on three stories by Anton Chekhov, a stunning, magical and overwhelming theatrical experience. Kemal Basar, director of Turkey’s Ankara State Theatre, considered “Requiem” to be a masterpiece. “It was amazing to be a witness to the high level of Israeli theater and to realize how they are trying to create a modern life in an uncivilized geography by using art,” Basar said.
Yaari, who is encouraged by the enthusiastic reaction of the guests, said: “Connections will be created and strengthened between different theater cultures and our own theater culture. Once you’ve opened the window, you can’t close it.” Those looking for a profound insight into present-day Israeli society — the conflicts, fears, frustrations, hopes, dreams and desires — won’t find it on CNN or on guided tours; they’ll find it at the theater.
*Rebekah Maggor is a playwriting fellow at the Huntington Theatre Company and the director of the speaking and learning program at Harvard University’s Derek Bok Center.