Theatrical comfort zone
The performance of Falcao's 'A Dona da Historia' illustrates the differences between repertory and commercial theater.
In Israel, "commercial theater" is an expletive theater people sling at a publicly subsidized, repertory theater that mounts a play mainly designed to contribute to its own coffers. But commercial theater is a healthy and vital aspect of theater life the world over. The problem is that it barely exists in Israel.
The historical, economic and social reasons for this are many, but there is little possibility of changing them. What is more interesting is to examine the difference between repertory theater and commercial theater, as defined by the "comfort zone" of both producers and audiences. Brazilian Joao Falcao's "A Dona da Historia" (Ahavat Hayai, in Hebrew), now showing at Beit Lessin, is an apt example of this significant difference.
Psychologists use the term "comfort zone" to describe the emotional and physical boundaries within which people feel secure, protected and unthreatened. Commercial theater provides the viewers with the sense that they remain within these limits. They purchase a ticket to a play featuring actors they have seen before and enjoyed in the past. In most cases, they receive the precise dose of dramatic entertainment they anticipated and return home as the same people they were, enriched by a pleasant experience. That is what commercial theater offers and that is what it provides - therefore, it requires no public funding.
At least in theory, public theater is supposed to challenge the viewer's comfort zone. It is supposed to make use of his expectations but also test his tolerance, to suggest a new way of looking at things, to disrupt his security and lead him to investigate intellectual and emotional truths.
"A Dona da Historia" appears to challenge its viewers' comfort zones, at least in terms of its content and plot. After they have purchased tickets based on their familiarity with actresses Yona Elian-Keshet and Maya Dagan, they find themselves watching a play whose plot demands a certain level of attentive effort: Two actresses play one character at two different points in time. Dagan is the young 20-year-old on the eve of a first date. Elian-Keshet is the same character, a theater actress, 30 years later.
They fight over the story of their life: Will the middle-aged woman be the result of the younger woman's decisions and actions, or does the young woman have no choice but to act according to what has already happened to the older woman? The stage is, in fact, the only place where one character can simultaneously experience two situations, with no clear indication whether any one of those situations is "true."
This (comic or dramatic) departure from the limits of realistic events does not simplify the viewer's experience, although it was already implemented decades ago in repertory plays by Luigi Pirandello and his followers. The audience is constantly making an effort to understand what is "real" and what is "theater," and who is a figment of whose imagination.
In theater that is unafraid to challenge the audience's comfort zone, this game of reflections may continue to blend time and imagination and leave the viewer to unravel the epic, structural and emotional complexities on his way back home. Everyone is required to examine and redefine their own comfort zone, as viewers and as individuals.
On the other hand, the trend in commercial theater, which absorbs innovations in "artistic" theater, is to ultimately clarify limits, return the viewer to his comfort zone, ease his confusion and, sometimes, even fortify his protective walls.
That is what happens in this play. Initially, director Roni Pinkowitz erects an incredibly precise structure, in which the actresses speak at once and mirror each other's gestures with flawless alignment. However, immediately afterward, Elian-Keshet is granted an opportunity to explain what is "really" happening. In an extended monologue, directed at the audience, she explains who is who, and when. Her vast experience on stage, including similar roles in which she conducts a direct dialogue with the audience, puts her in a comfortable position.
In this situation, Elian-Keshet knows how to flirt with the audience, without being condescending and while remaining in control. She engages them, gains their affection and clarifies the plot, until the moment of conflict between both characters arrives. At this point, the status of each one of them is undermined. It is a very brief moment, too brief, and the play ends in a place in which each actress continues to speak from the stance in which she remains in her life's drama.
What is particularly interesting about this play is that the actresses, as well as the audience, remain within their comfort zones. Elian-Keshet has played an endless number of roles in which a woman controls her life and the stage, and she does so naturally and with charm while flirting with the audience - an act she clearly enjoys. At least in the audience's eyes, Elian-Keshet occupies the same place, in both her life and her career, that is held by the character. Likewise, Dagan has played an enterprising, young woman on several occasions, including in "Chicago," with the same chutzpah, bursting energy and degree of emotional impermeability. Her character aptly integrates the qualities she radiates in popular television series like "Our Song" and "Nightclub." This is what these actresses know how to do, this is what they do well and this is what the audience likes to see them do.
I would like to see them in other roles: Dagan in roles that would force her to slow down her reactions, not rely on energy and charm, and expose a bit or even a lot of emotional vulnerability. For example, Garson Kanin's "Born Yesterday" - as long as Dagan plays Billie Dawn alongside a real actor (rather than the popular portrayal recently delivered by Sefi Rivlin and Rama Messinger at Beit Lessin).
I would like to see Elian-Keshet in roles in which she is forced to restrain her stage personality, to respond rather than rule, to listen and not just explain (though she did present a taste of that in "Iron" and "Mirale Efrat").
In this play, Elian-Keshet and Dagan are doubly protected: in their characters and in the structure mounted by the director. Now, he and they must find the freedom within that framework to challenge one another without disassembling the entire system and relinquishing its balance. It is possible, and it will probably happen, but everything will nonetheless remain within the emotional and theatrical comfort zone of the audience and the actresses.
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