Text size

A little help enabled this critic to experience 2 out of 3 Almas in a play whose experimental structure is as important as its content Playwright Clare Boothe Luce once said, "No good deed goes unpunished." Last week, I wrote here about how I wanted to see "Alma" - an international production by Yehoshua Sobol and Paulus Manker, which is being performed only this month in the Underground Prisoners' Museum in Jerusalem - but was unable to do so because of my physical limitations. As a result, the production made an effort to help me experience this theatrical journey, or at least a substantial part of it, since I moved as little as possible among the spaces, in each of which several different scenes are presented.

I must point out that during the three and a half hours of the performance, of which I saw about 10 scenes out of about 40 - approximately the same number that a spectator who chooses for himself manages to see - playwright Yehoshua Sobol, the public relations agent for the play and another young man accompanied me to help me. Thus I can't be sure I have been able to totally neutralize the fact that I feel somewhat obliged by their kind assistance.

In terms of logistics, "Alma" is an amazing operation: the inventive abilities of Sobol and director Manker, who made good use of the potential of the unique form they chose; the talent for planning, organization and implementation demonstrated by a team of experienced and efficient stagehands; the gathering and recruitment of a group of Israeli and Austrian actors, who create these mobile scenes and breathe life into them. Just the size and the fact that it works with the efficiency of an Austrian clock oblige me to take off my hat and say that no matter what my opinion, it is a breathtaking and instructive experience that provokes thought about this strange art called theater, with its potential and limitations.

Because of the circumstances, I saw a very specific selection of scenes: the opening scene, Alma Mahler's 130th birthday party, which is ostensibly being held today, in a fictitious setting, with all the men in her life and her three young alter egos participating; the scene in which Gustav Mahler demands that the young Alma Schindler, who has ambitions of being a composer herself, give up everything in order to be his wife, and she agrees; and the scene in which the 130-year-old theatrical Alma meets Mahler in an imaginary world after his death, when he is trapped in his humiliation over the fact that during his lifetime, critics attacked him and his music, both in Vienna and in New York. She already knows that his music has triumphed, but to him that no longer makes any difference, because during his life, he missed out on fame as well as love.

Afterward I watched Alma, the wife of Mahler the successful conductor in New York, undergoing rehabilitation in a sanatorium and mourning the life she agreed to give up for love; I had a glimpse of the essence of Freud's analysis of Gustav Mahler, in which he determined that Mahler married Alma because he wanted to console his mother, who was a victim of his father, whereas Alma was looking for a father figure in him; then I joined the entire audience in Mahler's funeral cortege (to the strains of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, which reverberated well through the domes of the building). I participated in a very real meal that is also an intermission, and after it I watched the scene of men going off to World War I from the railroad platform (some of the men in Alma's life did fight in this war, and she definitely pushed them into it). I also witnessed an unusual scene in terms of style - a grotesque caricature of the sixty-something Alma, clinging to her image as a femme fatale, in a fight with her lesbian friend.

The journey came to an end with two scenes in which Oskar Kokoschka was the lead. In one, he has intercourse with Alma on the table and then goes off to war. In the second, he returns wounded and brings home a life-size doll of his beloved Alma. Then comes the crazy final scene, which ends with the characters inviting the spectators to waltz.

I also saw the young Alma telling her mother that she has decided to marry Mahler (and her mother, who is also the 130-year-old Alma, objecting with the argument that what is important is what happens in bed, and with Gustav there is not much chance that anything will happen), as well as the married Alma, who expressed her loathing for her Jewish husband's family.

What I didn't see at all were the scenes dealing with Alma's relationship with writer Franz Werfel and her trip to Palestine with him. So it is certainly possible that there were spectators who saw an entirely different story from the one I saw. There are three Almas here in all: Mahler's, Kokoschka's and Werfel's. In my opinion, even a very agile spectator can physically manage to take in fragments of only two of the three at most.

Overall, the structure of the performance does not help the character development. Instead, it relies on the personalities of the actors and their ability to maintain their concentration in spite of the general frenetic atmosphere. Naturally I can only discuss the actors whom I actually saw.

Aviva Marks is the "uber-Alma," and her unique, fragile and artificial character, along with the fact that she sounds more natural in English than the other actors, bring magic to the play. (The production takes place both in Hebrew, spoken by the Israeli actors, and in English, spoken by the Austrians and the Israelis in joint scenes.)

Among the young Almas, I saw two: Austrian Donia Gulpashin and Israeli Adi Gilat - one a satanic and sensual redhead, the other a cheeky and fragile blonde. Both are naturally drawn to somewhat extroverted acting and both are involved and interesting, each in her own way.

Paulus Manker, the director, also plays Kokoschka, and conveys crazy coarseness that alternates with clowning. He easily dominates the second part of the play and its conclusion, going on a serious ego trip (but this is a play about an ego trip, so it's no wonder).

I was also much impressed by Doron Tavori in the role of Mahler: In the midst of all this extravagance, he managed to maintain a tortured introversion, whose spirit accompanies the entire production. (In fact, I think Mahler is the figure who should have a play written about him. But certainly not of this kind and scope - though his music also stretches the form to its limits.)

Yoav Levy plays a kind of master of ceremonies who can be used any time there is a need to connect the scenes and bridge gaps. He also plays Freud, in a scene that presents psychoanalysis in quite a ridiculous light, in my opinion. With his enthusiasm, he manages to carry off an impossible and grotesque (and in truth, quite revolting) scene of the aging Alma adhering to her cosmetics-laden youth in a caricatured portrait.

The loose format also encourages phenomena that are quite problematic in my opinion: For example, spectators who decide they are tired of a particular scene get up and walk out in the middle. Even if that is the intention, it disturbs others.

There were also spectators who related to the intimacy with the actors as a license to react out loud to what was said, with remarks like "Of course!" or "Right!" I'm in favor of taking the audience out of its passivity, but only up to a point.

And now for the bottom line: What do Sobol and Manker actually have to say about Alma? To judge by the final scene (which is seen by everyone), in which all the men in Alma's life abuse the Alma doll and in effect tear it to pieces, we could conclude that Alma herself is without worth and significance. She is important because she was everyone's puppet: She allowed them to play with her, and through her, to produce their finest works. They used her and tossed her out, as do Sobol and Manker.

But we can also understand it in the opposite way: That is how they saw her, but she outlived them all, fueled by their works and their fame, and even had quite a bit of fun in her long life, even if she did not fulfill herself. After all, we continue to talk about her more than about the works of Mahler, Kokoschka, Werfel and Sobol. So who exploited whom? Does it matter if everyone got something out of the exploitation, in real time or in eternity?

And what do I think of the unique structure of this play? In order to answer that, I have to do a little exercise with you, the readers. Please think of a number between 1 and 10. Now multiply it by 7. Add 17 to the result. Subtract 22 from the number you got. Now divide the result by 5. If it can't be divided, take the remainder. Add 7 to the result. Have you calculated? Great.

Whatever you got is the correct result. That is the unique mechanism, or indeed machination, of this play, which is simple, effective and only requires a certain effort: The journey is just as important as the destination. And if you enjoy the journey, what difference does it make where you end up?