11 November 2016

Dispatches From Israel 10

by Helen Kaye

[Here’s the latest installment of Helen’s “Dispatches from Israel.”  One review’s of a Hebrew translation of William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus; the other  covers a stage adaptation of a World War II novel.  Both productions were presented by the Habima Theater in Tel Aviv, the national theater of Israel.  Helen’s remarks are, as usual, pithy and astute, and the range of theater represented by the two productions demonstrates how broad the taste and interests of the Israeli theatergoers are.  Once again, I feel fortunate to be able to share Helen’s theatrical insights with ROT readers and to offer a viewpoint and a voice I wouldn’t otherwise be able to present.]

Alone in Berlin
By Shahar Pinkas
Based on the novel by Hans Fallada
Directed by Ilan Ronen
Habima, Tel Aviv; 11 September 2016

What if? Fraught words. What if the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 had not been so vengeful towards Germany? What if Adolf Hitler had been accepted to Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts? What if? We’ll never know because it was, and he wasn’t, which brings us to Habima’s very powerful, very moving, almost transcendent production of Alone in Berlin, Shahar Pinkas’ unsentimental adaptation of Hans Fallada’s best-seller novel.

The production (and of course the novel), expose the inexorable a-human tramp of history, expose in all its obscenity the pitiless human construct that was Nazi Germany.

Opposition to it was a deadly option that few dared. This is the story of two who did, based on true events, and told in narrative and dialogue.

Like the rest, working-class couple Otto and Anna Quangel (Norman Issa, Osnat Fishman) keep their heads down, do their duty, hail the Führer. Then, just after the fall of France, Otto and Anna receive the news of their son’s death in combat, and are devastated, but what now?

Then grief and fear-addled Frau Rosenthal (Shulamit Adar), their Jewish neighbor whom retired Judge Fromm (Michael Koresh) is bravely hiding in his apartment, jumps to her death from four floors up.

That does it. Otto and Anna start writing and distributing postcards encouraging Germans to resist Herr Hitler, but most of them end up in the hands of the Gestapo, quickly handed in by their finders, terrified lest they be implicated.

Gestapo Obergruppenfuhrer Prall (Uri Hochman) bullies and threatens with annihilation (as he can) Kommissar Escherich (Tomer Sharon) who bullies, threatens and annihilates (as he can) others, in particular petty thief Enno Kluge (Ami Smolarchik) in order to expedite and effect the capture of the unknown post-card senders.

The Quangels are caught, of course, tortured, given a travesty of a trial, and sentenced to murder.

Ilan Ronen, taking a leaf from the book of expressionist theater, presents the tale in a grave, often stately choreography of people, music, chairs, stairs and sliding panels against a grey backdrop, a breathtakingly ironic counterpoint to the story’s snarling edginess, leaving judgment to us. All honor to the exquisitely perceptive Mr. Ronen and his designers: Niv Manor (set & video), Ula Shevchov (costumes),  Ziv Voloshin (lights), and Miri Lazar (music ed. and movement).

What makes Mr. Issa and Ms. Fishman so extraordinary as Otto and Anna is that they never betray their characters, they’re never more than ordinary people caught up in a grotesque world, and they let us see that, that they’re afraid, alone, each of them together. Thus ‘alone in Berlin’.

Another extraordinary performance is that of Uri Hochman as predator Prall. His is a deliberate, disciplined, depersonalized viciousness, epitomizing the regime that has made him. He projects terror. We shudder.

Other notable performances – and there’s not one that’s less than very good - include Ms. Adar’s tremulous, dwindling Frau Rosenthal, Mr. Koresh’s decent, old-school Judge Fromm, and Mr. Smolarchik’s out-of-his-depth, increasingly desperate Enno Kluge.  As Escherich, Mr. Sharon veers in the blink of an eye from arrogance to cowering servility; his Escherich eats himself from within.

Totalitarian regimes breed hyenas and Pini Kidron’s obsequious, on-the-make perpetual loser Borkhausen is one such prowling scavenger whose character provides the little humor there is.

We here have gone from beleaguered little hero state to one reviled, even (and most monstrously) compared to Nazi Germany – does anyone remember the 1995 poster depicting the late Yitzhak Rabin as an SS officer? – but such is not the purpose of Alone in Berlin. No.

“Don’t think. Just obey!” snaps a Gestapo (either Prall or Escherich), and that is the point this production makes. We cannot, may not, must not allow ourselves to “just obey”. To think, to think for ourselves is mandatory. If we want to survive as a nation it is.

*  *  *  *
By William Shakespeare
Translated by Dori Parnes
Directed by Irad Rubinstein
Habima, Tel Aviv; 13 April 2016

What drives Greek tragedy is the hubris, or overweening arrogance toward, and/or defiance of the gods, that inevitably leads to the hero’s destruction. So it is with Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. Add that to Irad Rubinstein’s Political Agenda driven interpretation of Coriolanus, already a very political play, its deliberately coarse language nimbly translated by Dori Parnes, and you get an interesting, but not always effective, production.

It’s playing in the little Bertonov theater; a nod to the “smoke-filled back rooms” of political tradition.

Front and center here is not Caius Martius’ aka Coriolanus’ (Gil Frank) neurotic arrogance –though on abundant display - but his relationship with his mother, the ambitious, domineering Volumnia played by Gila Almagor with a deliberate and vulgar gracelessness that is chillingly effective.

Did she live in the 1930s, Volumnia would have been one of those ghastly Hollywood mothers, intent on pushing their little darlings to stardom, as Coriolanus has been driven to excel since before his birth. Face to face with Mum, Coriolanus becomes a little boy again, pleading for Mama’s approval.

Also front and center is our own body politic, corrupt and self-serving, represented by Sicinia Micki Peleg Rothstein) and Brutus (Rotem Keynan), a couple of envious tribunes whose chief attribute is that they’re experts when it comes to mob manipulation, and to a lesser extent by Menenius (Uri Hochman), a veteran pol who’s also Coriolanus’ friend and backer, and whom Hochman portrays with genial ruthlessness.

It’s an involved story. Power is in the hands of a few – sound familiar? – and the populace is hungry, rebellious, and – sound familiar? – looking for someone to blame. It doesn’t help when Caius Martius (CM) tells them in no uncertain terms to mind their betters, of whom he’s one.

Meanwhile salvation appears as renewed conflict with the Volsci, traditional enemies to Rome. When it comes to guns or butter – sound familiar? – guns win hands down “Give me war over peace anytime,” happily says a Volsci soldier.

Volsci general Aufidius (Alex Krol) and CM are old and bitter enemies. They even dress a lot the same, unkempt and nearly bare-chested!

When CM batters the Volsci capital Coriolis into submission, he comes back to Rome an unwilling Hero, unwilling because battle, violence and blood are his natural habitat, and is persuaded to run for Consul. To get their votes, Coriolanus has to pander to the people – these scenes are dirty politics glorified, and are marvelous – which he performs with near open contempt.

Grabbing their opportunity the Tribunes get him expelled from Rome on a trumped up charge. Humiliated, furious, Coriolanus throws in his lot with Aufidius and they march on Rome. But when Mum begs him to spare his native city, Coriolanus buckles (as he always has), and for his betrayal, is promptly dispatched by Aufidius.

Gil Frank plays Coriolanus with demonic glee, an actor playing to the hilt a man who’s obliged to act out his mother’s vision of who he is, and for the most part it’s awesome. There’s a bit of unease in the scenes with Aufidius, but perhaps that’s because both actors’ characters are playacting and they’re not sure what ends where.

Shahar Raz and Ben Yusipovitch bounce energetically and well in and out of multiple roles.

This Coriolanus bounces in and out as well between amazingly good and somewhat tedious. But one item on Rubinstein’s agenda is crystal clear. Forget peace. Violence works.

[For readers new to ROT, Helen’s past contributions are well worth looking back at.  Previous “Dispatches,” numbers 1 through 9, have been posted  on 23 January 2013, 6 August 2013, 20 November 2013, 2 June 2015, 22 August 2015 (which also includes an article Helen wrote on the Israel Festival), 6 October 2015, 13 July 2016, and 2 October 2016.  (I also posted another of Helen’s JP reviews, Molière’s Tartuffe, on 2 November 2014 as a Comment to “Dispatches 3.”) ROTters might also enjoy looking back at ”Help! It’s August: Kid-Friendly Summer Festivals in Israel,” 12 September 2010; ”Acre (Acco) Festival, Israel,” 9 November 2012; “Berlin,” 22 July 2013; and “A Trip to Poland,” 7 August 2015.]

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