Stage Animal Too Close to Home

Avram, written by David Levin and directed by Oded Kotler, does a good job of depicting what happens when a neighborhood changes. But what about transcending reality?

Rather than describe the plot and characters of "Avram," which is set in the old central bus station in Tel Aviv, let's just say that I don't dispute a single word of the promotional advertising that describes playwright David Levin as using "sensitivity, compassion and humor" to depict those on the margins of society and show them to be possessed of violence and love, dreams and disappointment.

"A colorful and breathtaking picture of what is happening right under our noses," blares the Herzliya Ensemble's Hebrew website. Truth in advertising indeed.

Avram - Gadi Dagon - 06032012
A scene from 'Avram,' at the Herzliya Ensemble. 'A colorful and breathtaking picture of what is happening right under our noses.'Gadi Dagon

On the right-hand side of the stage is the house where Avram lives. Veteran actor Gabi Amrani plays him with his succulent personality, restrained here so that it comes off as a kind of quiet despair.

Levin grew up in the vicinity of the old central bus station, and his character Avram is one of the veteran Israelis who have lived there for years and never left, despite the changes that have turned the south Tel Aviv neighborhood into a haven for labor migrants and refugees, primarily from Africa and Asia.

Back when he might still have sold his apartment for a decent sum, Avram stayed put in the very location that is, by its nature, a kind of way station between here and there. Now only the health clinic and the market remain for him. And his beautiful young daughter Rachel, who lives in the same house.

Leah Kamhazi shows definite promise in her role as Rachel, who in a certain sense is the dynamic center of the play.

Her father wants her to marry a municipal inspector called David (Yoav Hait ), who is in love with her. She reads about love in books, she goes out every morning to sell the bric-a-bracs she makes herself and, unlike her father, she believes she is on her way out of the neighborhood.

On the left-hand side of the stage is the home that belongs to David's mother, Sarah, who is also stuck in the neighborhood even though her son would like to get her out of there. She is played by Rahel Dobson, with all the characteristics of an Ashkenazi Jewish mother: She wants a good future for her son, and she simultaneously encourages her son and emasculates him. The conversations between David and his mother are as loud and querulous as those between Rachel and her father are quiet and restrained.

David's love propels the main plot, in which he clumsily courts Rachel, who says she is seeking love but doesn't love him. David is also a link to one of the themes of the play: the attitude toward the other.

Somewhat strangely, given that so many of the current residents of the neighborhood are from elsewhere, there are only two "others" in this play: a street cleaner of Ethiopian origin played by Shai Pardo - who has evidently lived here long enough that he can lend people money and who withstands being threatened, beaten and fired - and a Romanian plumber played by Itcho Avital, who is harassed by David as the inspector violently acts out his frustrations at his disappointing courtship of Rachel.

All the characters I have described so far have good intentions, even if they do bad things. Then there is the villain of the play: Yair (played frenetically by Eli Menashe ), who fantasizes about a career as a champion boxer - not exactly the enlightened guy his name (which means "he will illuminate" ) indicates, as Rachel points out.

We see how the beautiful Rachel gives herself to him, satisfies his need for dirty talk during sex and then dumps him. Though the scene is long and detailed, we are still left wondering how she got into this relationship and what has caused her to end it (apart from the production's interest in a realistically portrayed violently erotic scene ). Yair also commits an intentional act of violence in the play against Arabs (he thinks ).

The picture is rounded out by a good-hearted prostitute (Naomi Frumovitz-Pinkas ) who earns her living at the central bus station (Avram hears what she does but believes she doesn't really go all the way ) and a drunken actor (Doval'e Glickman ) who staggers around the stage quoting "Hamlet," which makes it possible to give this realistic group portrait a cultural tint.

All the actors, the veterans as well as those newer to the stage, are professionals and play their roles faithfully and skillfully. The subplots about the minor characters are moving, even if they are predictable and presented in too much detail.

The stage itself is a motley collection of furniture, props and technological devices (like a video camera broadcasting images of the drunk actor ) that go on and off the stage as needed. There is a black space that could be a central bus station, but could just as easily by anywhere else. Actors enter and exit the stage from both sides of the audience, to create the impression that the stage is part of the world in which the spectators live.

The production ends with an idyllic scene of pioneers dressed in white. They come ashore to the Tel Aviv of about 100 years ago, to emphasize - as if we haven't understood - that the psychological and physical misery we are watching is the degeneration of a beautiful dream.

Just a first step

For nearly 40 years now, I have been conducting a dialogue about the Israeli theater with Oded Kotler, the theater manager of the Herzliya Ensemble and the director of "Avram."

Part of our dialogue is indirect: He is a director and theater manager (a position he previously held at Haifa Theater ) and I write reviews about his theatrical choices. In many cases, this conversation is not really pleasant for either side: I admit I have not spared him the rod, and I am definitely aware that I don't necessarily stir positive sentiments in him.

Yet I am also happy to say that every time we have had occasion to talk about a production in which he was involved and which I reviewed, it was extremely civilized and he always appeared to take even negative reviews well. Since I have encountered a range of other kinds of reactions, I can appreciate the emotional restraint required for him to do so.

A large part of my dialogue with Kotler, who is also an actor, is direct and open, and takes place at innumerable symposia and panel discussions about the Israeli theater. And wonder of wonders, in such forums I very often find myself agreeing with his assessment of Israeli theater over the years and the way it has dealt with issues like culture gaps, public subsidies for theater and the effort to increase the number of theatergoers. And I have heard him say on several occasions that we hardly disagree at all when we talk about the macro - why Israeli theater is the way it is - even though we usually have differences of opinion when we talk about productions in which he is directly involved.

Kotler has demonstrated an unambiguous preference - and this, of course, is a generalization - for using the stage as a forum for a slice of Israeli reality, rather than for a middling production of a translated play or a tedious and inept production that aims to be "cultural." I, however, believe that representing the Israeli reality onstage (and using an Israeli style of acting ) is just a first step in work that requires more refinement and complexity. We have already made great progress since Kotler's early days at the Haifa Theater in the abilities of the actors, the translators and the audience to deal with complex and stylized theater.

Unexpected moments

The most beautiful moments of 'Avram' are those that are unexpected, possibly even insignificant: when the drunk actor pets an imaginary dog with the prostitute, when she is faced with the naive love of the Romanian labor migrant. In these instances, we are seeing something new created before our eyes, not an incident or character that reflects reality and may be intended to generate guilt feelings.

It is not difficult to be moved by the small human stories onstage. I am certain they exist aplenty in real life, and these human wounds are deserving of attention. Moreover, Levin wrote this play as a description of a certain reality, which from his perspective is representative of what is happening in Israel at large. And Kotler appears to see it as his obligation to bring such material to the stage. They are both grappling with reality and giving actors roles in which they can do their best.

David Levin wrote the play he wanted to write and Oded Kotler directed it in the way that, in his view, best serves the actors and the play itself. This is the kind of theater Kotler believes in and helps create.

I urge readers to see this production, partly so they can judge for themselves what Kotler's artistic intentions are for the Herzliya Ensemble. Indeed, there seems to be a lot of audience support for this kind of theater, as can be seen in online comments in favor of the moving and painful production and against old-fashioned critics like me.

Yet I still insist that even from material like this one can create a different kind of show: performances that deal with emotions but don't content themselves themselves with moving the audience, productions that offer observers something that transcends the reality that greets them when they step outside the theater.