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Kaleidoscope: A visit to Israel's International acclaimed Gesher Theatre in Tel Aviv
By Miri Ben-Shalom

Miri Ben-Shalom was born in Israel and studied Theater at Tel Aviv University. Since 1973 in New York. Miri has been a documentary filmmaker and editor for more than twenty years. She worked for the major TV networks, as well as many independent productions. She co-produced and edited the documentary preserving the Past to Ensure the Future that was nominated for an Academy Award. For other works she is a Telly Awards recipient, a US International Film and Video Festival winner and received a 1998 National Headliners Award. She also wrote several feature length screenplays. In the last three years Miri returned to her original interest – theater. Currently, the play I Want the Whole World to See that I Can Cry through her non-profit company From Home to Homeland, Inc., she is working on producing this play for the stage, as well as a touring educational version for high school and college students to enhance the teaching of the WWII Holocaust curriculum. www.icancry.org,  . Miri is also the Literary Liaison of The Genesius Theatre Guild www.genesiusguild.org  . e-mail : mirib@earthlink.net  

On my last visit to Israel I finally saw the much talked about Gesher Theatre’s production of Adam Resurrected (called Adam Son of Dog in Hebrew). Since 1993, for ten days twice a year, a circus tent is erected at the Tel Aviv Center for the Arts. However, the popular sold out performances are not fun-filled circus shows, but a serious play, portraying a tormented Holocaust survivor. Based on Yoram Kaniuk’s novel, adopted by Alexander Chervinsky and directed by Yevgeny Arye, the play depicts Adam Stein, a famous circus artist before the war who is forced by the concentration camp’s commandant to be his dog. In Hebrew the word Adam has two meanings, it is both a first name and the word for ‘man’, hence the Hebrew title, Adam Ben Kelev, has double meaning: Adam Son of Dog, and also A Man, Son of Dog. Such duality is displayed throughout the play. The circus setting itself bitterly illustrates the enormity of the degradation. Adam, the clown must perform and entertain the “crowds” of Jews, his beloved wife among them, as they are herded to the gas chambers, to please them and take their mind off the fact that they are led to their gruesome death. In one scene a woman, smilingly lets her persecutors take away her purse, her hat, her fur coat, until she is naked, shocked and horrified, as she is tossed into the red flames of the crematorium. To further denigrate Adam, as his starved dog, the commandant orders him to acrobatically hop into his prisoner’s uniform, and to walk on a tightrope across the ring to fetch a bone. “What a Jew won’t do for a bone?” the commandant proclaims with glee to his satisfied fellow German officers. Here again, literally and metaphorically, any misstep will cost him his life.

The story spans three time periods in Adam’s life: before the war, during, and after the war as a patient in a mental hospital. The plot is subtle; reality and imagination are blurred. The timeline, characters, and locations are confused and confusing, as they are in Adam’s mind. The Commandant is also his psychiatrist, the hospital ward is the concentration camp, and the Jewish prisoners are the hospital’s inmates.

Visually as well as conceptually the play is a fascinating experience. This is an innovating, provocative production, steaming with creative energy. The directing is vibrant and the acting is superb. However the play isn’t engrossing enough. It is more like a spectacle with a good idea, almost a happening, even though the realism of the absurd is relevant and important. The story is not spoon-fed, but elusive. Non-chronological bits and flashes of events and grotesque situations tell Adam’s horrific story. Over-use of visual and theatrical effects dulls the play’s impact, though, and doesn’t sufficiently penetrate the depth of Adam’s plight. His tragedy doesn’t end when the war ends. An ex-dog, now in a psychiatric hospital, Adam is unable to adapt to life as a man again, or to life at all. “I’m a small man,” says Commandant Kline (Kline being the word for ‘small’ in German) to Adam Stein, “but I made you my dog. You hate me but I save you”. This is Theatre of the Absurd at its best, though it is a horrendous absurd: only because his master forces him to be a dog and a clown whose job is to entertain the victims, to “ease” their mood on their way to the gas chamber, only because of this job is his own life saved. But was his life saved? Condemned to live a life of a dog and a clown for the rest of his days in an insane asylum, unable to cope with his survival, with the tormenting question – was he a victim or a collaborator?

Gesher Theatre is a phenomenon in the Israeli theatrical landscape. Within less then ten years of its creation in 1991 by newly arrived Russian immigrants who did not even speak the native language, Gesher has arguably become the most successful theatre in the country. Even its first production, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, was met with audience and critic acclaim, and was chosen to represent Israeli theatre at the BAM in New York. This was the first of Gesher’s many trips to perform overseas. Adam Resurrected, Gesher’s fifth offering, premiered in the Vienna Festival in June of 1993. The following year the company took the production on a three-week tour in Germany. “It happened,” The ZDF German television network proclaimed, “Gesher Theatre has shaken Berlin with its play Adam Resurrected”.

Der Spiegel wrote: “The fine sensitivity of the actors’ performances is contrasted with the strong drastic statements made by the scenes, which are loud, musically emphatic, lavishly illustrated. Gesher tries in a deeply moving way to bring pain on stage…without exaggerations, but with true knowledge of pain… the precision of the scenes, the great power of the total performance, and the dizzying underlining humor-- one cannot wish for more.”

In the summer of 1998 the play was invited to the prestigious Lincoln Center Festival in New York.

Variety’s Charles Isherwood objected to the “stylistic bombast” of the play: “For nearly three hours a numbing array of staging gimmickry was shuttled in and out of the ring, most courtesy of a set of train tracks running through its center, all of it more distracting than illuminating… More over, by ignoring theatrical niceties as characterization and comprehensibility,” writes Mr. Isherwood, “one began to get the uneasy feeling that a director was exploiting material touching on very sensitive topics merely to dazzle audiences with his bravura and (pseudo-) daring technique.” He ends on a softer tone: “Arey’s heart might be in the right place, but in this case his aesthetic judgment certainly wasn’t.”

Peter Marks of The New York Times on the other hand felt that “the company’s treatment of this dense and abstracted material is frequently ingenious and occasionally inspired.” Mr. Marks did consent that: “Some playgoers may be put off by the overwrought qualities in the writing and the stagecraft. But given the subject matter, it’s hard not to forgive a theater company, forged in the Jewish homeland by Russian refugees, for going overboard now and again.”

One might think that such painful material calls for a simpler rendering of the play, especially in Israel. However, Yevgeny Arey, the director and founder of Gesher who was a recent arrival to Israel, proved otherwise. Like the rest of Gesher’s productions, the play was enthusiastically accepted in Israel, and for the next 13 years has been performed for a sold out theater. That is – tent.

Gesher’s success is in big part due to its charismatic founder and Artistic Director, Yevgeny Arye and his talented ensemble. But without a doubt, Ori Levy, Gesher’s Director General, has had a considerable part in it as well. Sitting with Ori Levy in his comfortable living room in Tel Aviv, I couldn’t help but wonder how such a well-known and established Israeli actor became the General Director of Gesher, what was then a small Russian language theatre. Administrative work was not new to him, Ori explained. After a 40 year acting career in theatre and film in Israel and abroad, (he played next to stars like Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Omar Sharif, Michael Caine, to name a few), Ori was asked to also be an assistant to the Director General of his home theatre – Hacameri. “I liked it very much, so when in 1995 I was offered the General Director job at Gesher Theatre which was then in an administrative crisis, as they realized it was important for them to have an Israeli director, I happily agreed. I saw in it not only a personal challenge, but also, yes, I’m not ashamed to admit, a Zionist challenge.”

After joining the theatre, Ori’s priority was to establish Gesher as an all-Israeli theatre. “Don’t get me wrong, well before I joined the theatre their plays were excellent. But at the time, mostly the newly arrived Russian population attended their plays. I helped Gesher achieve the popularity they enjoy today by bringing Gesher’s plays to the notion of the general Israeli public. I was also instrumental in getting Gesher its permanent residency, Noga theatre, in Jafa-Tel Aviv, and in reaching the wide recognition the theatre receives abroad.” Ori is not boasting, but he is extremely proud. He sounds like a happy parent. “In our 14 years of existence Gesher produced 29 plays. Ten of them were invited to festivals around the world. To date we had 26 tours overseas!” Enthusiastically, as if this is his first year with Gesher, not his 10th, he elaborates: “Three times at the Berlin Festival, three times in New York, twice in London, in Paris, Melbourne, Dublin, Moscow, Riga, Tallinn, where not? The London Times called Gesher ‘One of the greatest and most important troupes in the world’ after our 1998 visit. There is no other Israeli theatre that is so extensively invited abroad. Last year we performed Adam Resurrected in Lodz, Poland. The tent was erected at the old market square, the same place where the transports left to Auschwitz… We are going to Toronto, to Warsaw, and the most remarkable and exciting thing – we were officially invited to perform Adam Resurrected at the National Chinese Arts Festival in October, commemorating the 60 year anniversary of the end of World War II. There is no other Israeli theatre that is invited abroad as often as Gesher. With that in mind, financially, our travel expenses are always covered, either by the festivals that invite us or by foundations, and at times with the help of the foreign and Education Ministries. The tickets price we charge pays the wages.” 

How is your relationship with Yevgeny Arye, the Artistic Director? Being an artist in an administrative role is frequently a recipe for constant conflicts. How do you avoid it? 

Ori Levy : Despite my artistic background I try not to interfere in artistic matters. He consults with me, but I don’t intervene, and this, I believe, is the secret of our successful relationship. We were concerned about this presenting a problem at the beginning, but now, after 10 years, it’s not an issue. It is wonderful to make a turn in the middle of one’s life and do something else. It wasn’t a drastic turn, I remained involved in the theatre production, but on the other side of the curtain. 

Gesher’s story brings to mind the story of Israel’s National Theatre – Habima, which arrived in Israel in the thirties. What is your take on this? 

Ori Levy : There are many similarities as well as differences. Habima was founded in 1917 in Moscow as a Hebrew language theatre. In 1926 the company left Russia and toured all over the world before settling in Palestine in 1931. Like Gesher, they also had an artistic leader, Ivgeny Vakhtangov, who made all the decisions, artistic as well as the policy and strategic direction. Gesher’s Yevgeny Arye was a “refusnik” (dissident). He was a well-known director in Russia who was refused permission to immigrate to Israel. Instead, he was fired and allowed to work only as a teacher. In 1991, when Russia opened its gates, he immigrated to Israel. Five of his former students, now professional actors in Moscow, joined him. With no money and no conditions they auditioned other Russian immigrants and founded Gesher. They performed in Russian only. Two years later they decided to start performing in Hebrew too, not knowing any Hebrew. The plays were translated into Hebrew and the Hebrew text transliterated in Russian letters. Until today they are one of the only bi-lingual theatres in the world, working with simultaneous translation. Lately, after we added Gesher II, many Israeli actors joined the ensemble. Now the roles are reversed – they play in Russian without knowing the language. 

So what lies ahead? 

Ori Levy : The theatre has decided to make repertoire changes and to include modern and international plays. Until now we have dealt only with Israeli plays and adaptations of Jewish literature. Currently we are simultaneously working on three new productions. The first is variations for theatre and orchestra, an anthology of composed Russian poetry. The second is an adaptation of David Grossman’s book See Under Love, Part One – Momik. The third is The Pillowman by the Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, a hit at London's National Theatre that is on Broadway now. We’re also planning to resume performing Medea, which was postponed due to the injury of the lead actress. One thing will not change though: Gesher’s uncompromising adherence to the principle of putting on high quality plays without being influenced by considerations of ratings and commerciality.

We are also planning future travels, including an extensive tour in the United States, which will include New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and possibly other cities.

Ori Levy’s love and devotion to Gesher and its productions is contagious. There is no question that I will be at their next performance in New York, and on opening night no less!

Gesher Theatre
Gesher Theatre was founded in Israel in 1991 with the support of the Ministry of Education and Culture, the Jewish Agency, the City of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, The Tel Aviv Development Foundation and the Zionist Forum. Gesher Theatre comprises mostly new immigrants from Russia, and is now regarded as an inseparable part of Israeli culture.

Yevgeny Arye, Gesher Theatre’s Founder and Artistic Director to this very day, was a reputable and successful stage and screen director in Moscow, laureate of many prizes in Russia and elsewhere.

Ori Levy, formerly a Cameri actor and Administrative Director, was appointed as Director General of Gesher Theater in June 1995.

Gesher Theatre Productions:

April 1991 :Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

July 1991 :The Dreifus File

Janury 1992 : Molière

December 1992 :The Idiot

June 1993: Adam Resurrected,

December 1994 :Lower Depths

July 1995 :Tartuffe

February 1996 :Village

December 1996: City – Odessa Stories

December 1997 :Three Sisters

February 1998 : Don Juan

January 1999 :Eating

July 1999 : Love and Intrigue

July 1999 :The River

December 1999 :Sea

June 2000 : Moscow - Petushky

July 2000 :On Borrowed Time [Mr. Brink]

December 2000 : The Devil in Moscow

May 2001 :Miss Julie

September 2001: Midsummer Night’s Dream

November 2001:The Contrabass

April 2002 : The Slave

September 2002 : The Threepenny Opera

January 2003 :Love and Human Remains

May 2003 :Shosha

January 2004 : The Yalta Game and Afterplay

June 2004 : The Marriage of Figaro

July 2004 :The cripple of Inishmaan (Everyone wants to Hollywood).

January 2005 : Medea

May 2005 :Variations for Theatre and Orcestra

July 2005 :Momik

Contact :

Gesher Theatre

SDerot Yerushalayim 7-9,Tel Aviv-Jaffa,68114,Israel
Phone: 972-3-6813131 x 312
Fax: 972-3-6816430 
Ori Levy  e-mail :  olgesher@netvision.net.il  Website: http://www.gesher-theatre.co.il  

Related Links:

  • Read additional reviews by Miri Ben-Shalom
  • Read additional Theatre in Spotlight

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  • Miri Ben- Shalom

    Gesher Theatre’s Founder and Artistic Director Yevgeny Arye

    Administrative Director Ori Levy

    Adam Resurrected

    Adam Resurrected

    Variations for Theatre and Orcestra

    Variations for Theatre and Orcestra

    Variations for Theatre and Orcestra

    Village

    Medea

    The Marriage of Figaro

    Momik

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