Test-tube Thespians

The director is a rabbi, the lead actor is Muslim, the story is by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and it all happens at Jerusalem's Laboratory Theater.

At the end of the performance of "Multi-Faceted Tales" at Hama'abada (The Laboratory) Theater in Jerusalem, director Baruch Brenner asks the members of the audience to wait a moment and talk before they disperse. Brenner and Sami Samir, the lead actor and the assistant director of the play, who had barely caught his breath, take two of the chairs that had been the entire stage set and listen to questions.

The audience asked mainly about the performance, but also took advantage of the opportunity to bring up questions about the meaning of life. A few young people looked quite lost in the thicket of thoughts offered for general consideration. One of them, who looked like a teenager, even admitted to a kind of crisis in his life and took the trouble to explain how the performance had touched him right where it hurts. This private dialogue caused one to wonder whether opening a channel of communication like this with the audience, there isn't some sort of risk on the part of the director - especially with respect to a play that is likely to fall like ripe fruit into the hands of New Age consumers or lost youth.

When all is said and done, this is a play about a king and a wise man who goes forth to seek "the truth." Its author is a darling of the new spirituality: Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. The world of images in the work draws upon the Rabbi of Bratslav's "Book of Tales," which, according to Brenner, is overflowing with human wisdom. Brenner, it must be noted, knew and loved Rabbi Nachman even before he became a culture hero. As someone who, in addition to his theatrical activities, is also an ordained rabbi, it is difficult to say of Brenner that he is flirting with Jewish culture or "going back to the Jewish bookshelf." It is his life and he is nourished by it.

He describes the initiative of opening up a discussion with the audience as a human need to share feelings and ideas. Does this mean he needs a kind of confirmation from the audience? According to Brenner, the purpose is not to get feedback, but rather to conduct a kind of experiment: "We have created an opening here for people to come and react," he says, "in order to see whether something of value can emerge. I don't want them to pour their hearts out. I run away from this kind of response like from fire."

There is a dynamic process here, continues Brenner. Things that are not sharp enough to him either, because they emerged in the artistic momentum, settle into place and acquire meaning as they are discussed with the audience.

When the sources that inspired the director become clear, it is possible to see in the post-performance discussion a kind of addendum that has a life of its own, which exists in the yeshiva mode of learning together. At the same time, inherent in the attempt to stop transient momentum and breathe new life into it, there is cultural criticism.

"One of the actors said, `Let them go home with their own experiences,'" notes Brenner, "but in the fast and intensive world in which we live, sometimes there is no value to an experience, no matter how artistic, because it goes by so quickly. It is enough to go home and turn on the radio, and in a moment you lose the emotions and the feelings that arose at the performance."

Crossing boundaries

Brenner is accustomed to stretching the usual limits. It seems that since his youth he has been challenging social definitions and preset paths. He is 37, a rabbi and director, an actor and singer of Jewish and cantorial music, and a teacher at a yeshiva and at the Nissan Nativ Acting Studio. He does not hesitate to cross boundaries. In the Gesher Theater production "The Devil from Moscow," he played the role of Jesus, a role that suited his facial features, which bear a certain resemblance to Christ's. During the three years (until 1998) he was an apprentice at Polish director Jerzy Grotowski's acting workshop in Italy, he also served as the rabbi of the Jewish community in Pisa.

His appearance would suggest that he is of Italian Jewish origin, but Brenner grew up in a national-religious family of German Jewish origin in Haifa. He says with some pain that for many years he was a source of disappointed expectations for his parents, and that he and his family do not speak the same language despite the love and the reconciliation that was achieved after years of misunderstanding.

Toward the end of high school, when he was already signed up for the Mercaz Harav, the mainstream yeshiva accepted by his parents and where his elder brother learned, he heard about a new yeshiva, Mekor Haim, that was established by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, which was said to be an open place where it was possible to ask questions and intended for creative young men. Brenner registered there and very quickly, many of the "oddballs" from the religious world flowed to the yeshiva - among them Udi Leon, the founder of the religious film school Ma'aleh, and poet Admiel Kosman, who both, like Brenner, combine two worlds. The yeshiva ultimately closed down because, according to Brenner, "it was before its time and small people were afraid of its influence."

There Brenner also began to sing in front of an audience. Today he sings Jewish and cantorial music professionally in a baritone voice, and moderates and participates in "East and West, a Performance of Music from Hidden Worlds" at the Center for the Performing Arts in Tel Aviv, which first appeared at the Israel Festival.

He got into theater by chance, after he was assigned as a study partner at the yeshiva the head of the theater department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Prof. Yehuda Morali, who became newly religious and taught there. Morali is an international expert on the works of Jean Genet, and the friendship and dialogue that began between them motivated Brenner to take an interest in the theater. He laughs when he recalls his yeshiva appearance when he went for his audition at Nissan Nativ. After studying at Nissan Nativ, he joined a hesder yeshiva (a program that combines yeshiva studies with military service) and studied for ordination for the rabbinate. But he gained the bulk of his experience at Grotowski's acting workshop. "Multi-Faceted Tales" is the first play he has directed at a real theater.

Fairy-tale archetypes

The basic story of the original play reads like a children's fairy tale. This is the story of "a certain king who had a wise man," as in the opening words. The king collects portraits of other kings, and has heard about a certain king who covers his face and declares himself to be a true and humble hero. He sends the wise man to bring back a portrait of the humble king. Will the wise man manage to wend his way through that king's country, which turns out to be full of deceit, to reach the king beyond his corrupt ministers and to reveal his identity?

Among the stories of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, this tale (see "The King and the Wise Man" in "Nachman of Bratslav," translated with an introduction and commentaries by Arnold J. Band, Paulist Press, 1978) is considered the most impenetrable, but also the most intriguing. It is rich and not stingy with words, but it needs to be understood and interpreted. Fertile ground for work: "What attracted me in this story is that like in fairy tales it has archetypes: a king, a queen, ministers and a kingdom and a righteous man who sets out on a quest," explains Brenner.

On one level, then, it presents a quest to which everyone can attribute what is closest to his own heart - identity, faith, a career and so on - and gradually crystallizes into what appears to be a kind of social statement. The wise man in the play encounters a society that has come to the end of its road, which appears to be selling off its values and beliefs. He meets various characters along the way. To penetrate the society and reveal the king's cover - that is, to reveal the society's secret - the wise man buys the used merchandise. He is very quickly suspected of being a foreign agent and as punishment is dealt a culture shock: participation in a talk show, a kind of torture. He becomes insensitive, a prisoner of formulas and images that blind him. In the end he finds his way back exactly to the point from which he had started on his way, at the city gate. This ending usually leads the spectators to the question of whether Brenner is pessimistic and, of course, he has to explicate the reality in this country.

This play does not make for easy watching. Its production in the lovely space of the Laboratory Theater leads one to ponder on the journey that Brenner has made, as a director seeking dramaturgical means and an individual theatrical language. The decision to work with actor Sami Samir, who comes from a mixed Arab-Jewish family, on the Hasidic story - this is also not an obvious choice. Brenner says that every evening after the performance he is left with "bellyaches," as he puts it. This is an experiment with elusive materials that are decidedly not realistic and Brenner, who has chosen not to stick to a single narrative or a linear plot, wanders around behind the scenes like a person suffering tortures.

In this way it is possible to understand the artistic excess in the play, its indirectness, the transition between genres, between stand-up and satire, between Kafkaesque references and "greetings" from the reality that is in the news every day - a transition does not always do right by it. This excess is not uniform with respect to how interesting it is, as well as with respect to the artistic level of the various parts of the play. Despite a very talented group of young actors and the most successful moments that manage to be ironical through bodily nuances and vocal gestures, there are weak parts that resemble an end-of-year show by high-school students. One strong bit is a segment that focuses on a homeless woman on whom one of the ministers steps, in more than one sense of the word, in order to improve his position. However, the talk-show segment is particularly raucous.

The artistic quest that enters into an exhausting polemic with itself is ultimately intriguing, because it reveals the extent to which Brenner is a different voice in the theater world and how sensitive he is to words. He does not always succeed in being clear or precise, but it is obvious that the artistic sources that nourish him are different, extra-territorial and rich. The play, it would seem, could benefit if it were made tighter.

However, now that it has gone past the eight performances allotted to it by the Laboratory framework, without other sources of funding and with actors who have to work for no pay - it is not at all certain that it will survive.

Hama'abada is located at 28 Hebron Road. Coming from the direction of the old Jerusalem railroad station, turn right at the Hebron Road traffic light and immediately look for the sign pointing to the theater on the right, down a steep access road into the old rail yard.