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It looked as though Arieh Mark was about to lose the battle of his life. The Jerusalem fringe theater Pargod, which he established with his own hands in 1968, was facing closure. That was a year and a half ago. The Prazot building company had proved in court that the building in which the theater operates belongs to it and Mark almost gave up. And then he found a creative solution for circumventing the legal problem: He stopped selling tickets to shows. At the same time, he is continuing the process of appealing to the Supreme Court against the ruling. During the past two months, with the decline in the economic situation, he claims, yeshiva students and young people from the distressed neighborhoods who had never been to his theater have begun to discover its avant-garde performances.

Last Thursday, with his one-man show "The Last Move," he ended a festival of one-man shows, which filled the cave-like space with a spirit of renewed creativity. The theater, which served as a public bathhouse during the Turkish period, is an elongated space with an arched ceiling, at the end of which is a Spartan stage. It is located on the incline of Bezalel Street, at the entrance to the Nahlaot neighborhood. Mark struggled with the large hewn stones of the building during renovations in 1973, and also with the water from the bathhouse that was still operating upstairs at that time, which dripped down the walls and flooded the place.

Jewish spirit

During the 1970s theatrical stars like Oded Teomi and Zaharira Harifai performed on the Pargod stage. In the 1980s, Mark was one of the few theater proprietors who agreed to host the ethnic protest group Habreira Hativ'it. At the end of that decade, two Jerusalemite ensembles that made their mark on the Israeli pop scene emerged between the mildewed walls of the former Turkish bath: Nosei Hamigba'at and Dana Berger's group. To this day Mark is one of the outstanding promoters of heavy rock like that of Nosei Hamigba'at when they were starting out.

"What remains of all those rock- and-roll performances is the cry of pain, an incomprehensible distress," he explains. "What I was in fact hearing among all the sounds of distortion was a cry for help. And that's where I connect with them, because all of my own activity expresses the same idea. I've remained a wound and a bruise."

Anyone who becomes acquainted with Mark's life story through his autobiographical one-man show discovers that this is no theatrical exaggeration. Mark, who was born in a village in Romania a few years before the outbreak of World War II, has had chilling experiences during his lifetime. On a black stage with no props, in a thundering voice and informal language, he sets forth his difficult struggles and his soul-searching.

The first scene of destruction that Mark shows in the play is of a synagogue that was desecrated in a pogrom. He describes "Torah scrolls from which they made wallpaper, fancy handbags and sandals cobbled from the Torah-scroll leather, two corpses lying on the pulpit of the synagogue and my father chanting `El Malei Rahamim,'" the memorial prayer. In the play he performs the role of his father, who was a rabbi and a kabbalist in the village, and sings his own rendition of the prayer.

He suggests that the connection of the yeshiva students to the play derives in part from the Jewish spirit that prevails in it. "Once, after the show, two ultra- Orthodox members of the audience came up to me and told me that I had made their spines shiver with my rendition. All my brothers are ultra-Orthodox and their friends who at first came fearfully recommended that their friends come see the performance."

Also last Thursday, despite the prohibition on entertainment during the first nine days of the Hebrew month of Av, there was an ultra-Orthodox couple in the audience, who knew Mark's life story and the story of his father the kabbalist. Mark took it upon himself to assuage their conscience after the show: "There is no suspicion here of transgressing the `nine days' prohibition because my play is really not entertainment," he told them.

On his way to Israel after the Holocaust, death continued to pursue him. The ship Rafiah on which he sailed ran aground in the Siren Islands, off the coast of Rhodes, and dozens of the passengers drowned and died. In the play he describes the sight of the floating corpses from the verdant observation point on the island.

From the beginning of the 1970s, Mark worked at teaching and production jobs and thus financed the establishment of the theater, which he renovated and maintained with his own hands. Today, along with the legal struggle, he is conducting a public struggle to receive funding from the Ministry of Culture and municipal coffers. He says that he has been forced to resort to using his savings to keep the theater going, in the hope that at the end of the year he will receive funding from those sources.

Mark says that his struggle of many years has made him into a violent and angry person. He has not started a family and only a decade ago was cured of his alcoholism. In 1981, he was forced to cope with a long and difficult battle: A tumor had been discovered in his brain and Mark decided not to tell anyone about it: "I made a survival pact for myself that said that if people know that you are needy and unfortunate, they do not relate to you properly and are liable to attack you as in the jungle. Therefore, I did not reveal the matter of the tumor to anyone."

The title of his one-man play, "Last Move," was born during the struggle with the tumor: "From the moment it penetrated my consciousness that I was going to die and until it turned out that I was not going to die, two years passed during which I made a reckoning with my surroundings and with myself. This gave birth to a book of 200 pages, of which I adapted about 20 for performance in a play that was put on for the first time on the stage of the Teatronetto nine years ago." He intends to send the manuscript of the book to a publisher in the very near future.

Mark sees his activity as a social mission that springs from an inner "command." It is clear to him that in prolonged theatrical and musical activity, there is a kind of psychological therapy. As one of his spectators once exhorted him: "You have a personal trip. Society doesn't owe you anything. Do your trip and that's it." The moments when he discerns that the audience is enjoying itself with a "primal pleasure on the border of idiocy," as he defines it, help him to deal with the huge despair.

Struggle against Shylock

During the past two years Mark has been devoting himself to an unprecedented theatrical struggle - against Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice": "I found myself personally offended by the character of Shylock in `The Merchant of Venice.' How could Shakespeare, whom many studies have proven was influenced by the Bible, have created anti-Semitic vermin in the character of Shylock? I wanted to do a doctorate on Shakespeare only to lock horns with him."

Then help came from an unexpected direction. "A few years ago, at the Edinburgh Festival I discovered a one-man play called `Shylock,' by an English playwright who had grown up on the Shakespearean theatrical tradition. After I saw the play I went up to the actor and thanked him for exempting me from writing the corrected `Shylock.'"

The play depicts the anti-Semitic incarnations of Shylock on the stages of England and Germany over the years. A number of actors play different theatrical versions of the well-known character. The play, which Mark has translated into Hebrew, will be the centerpiece of the Shylock festival he is planning to put on in October. The festival is slated to include an original play by Mark that depicts a probing public trial of the Shylock character, along with discussions of books and caricatures related to the character.

"My dream," he declares, "is to put on a festival like this every year in a different country and thus indirectly to contribute to the fight against anti-Semitism."