Stage Animal A Moving Experience

A performance of the life of an anti-Semite seductress lays bare the gap between watching a show and experiencing it Alma Schindler-Mahler-Werfel (1879-1964) is immortal. Not just because of her unique character and life story including the men that were there, but because she was a sexy, intelligent, gifted musician who turned the heads (and other body parts) of two painters (Gustav Klimt and Oscar Kokoschka), two musicians (Alexander Zemlinsky and Gustav Mahler, whom she married), a well-known architect (Walter Gropius, whom she also married), and a writer, Franz Werfel (married him too).

There were many others as well, famous and less famous. All of them recognized her power and her charms but despised her as well. It was a mutual feeling. Ah, yes, she was an anti-Semite who insisted on falling in love with Jews.

She is immortal not only in her own right but also thanks to Alma-maniacs, mostly (but not only) men who have been trying for years to crack the secret of her charm. A character by this name (played by Yoav Levy) is an important element in the experience called Alma that is presented these days in the Underground Prisoners Museum in Jerusalem.

It is the product of two Alma-maniac's imagination: Joshua Sobol, who wrote the play and conceived the idea, and Paulus Manker, who directed the event and is in the show.

But it is not a show, it is an international enterprise. It was first presented in a sanatorium near Vienna (1996-2002) and since then was a hit in Venice (2002), Lisbon (2003) Los Angeles (2004) Petronell (a castle near Vienna, 2005), Berlin (2006), Semmering (a resort in Austria, 2007) and again Vienna (this time in a castle in the center of the city, 2008).

The Austrian government has sent it to Jerusalem as a late gift for Israel's 60th anniversary. Abundant details about the enterprise and its worldwide successes are available in a fascinating multi-lingual Web site

If it is not a show, then what is it? A polydrama. Not the theatrical group that appeared under this name in Glasgow in the 1980s but a term that Joshua Sobol coined especially for this theatrical experience.

It is always held in a building with an historical character that has many rooms. The show begins as a modern birthday party for Alma Mahler (even though its debut was held when she was 117 years old and by now she is 130).

All the men in her life attend it, as there are three incarnations of the young Alma herself, each one claiming to be the real seductress and accusing the other of being mere pretenders.

After the opening scene, the audience is invited to break up and follow one of the characters, be it one of the Almas or the men, and the scenes are presented concurrently in the various rooms. Some two hours later there is an intermission and a dinner that is included in the price of the ticket (and stands for the dinner after Gustav Mahler's funeral).

Then there are some two more hours in which the audience is invited to build its own theatrical jigsaw puzzle, enter the scene, leave it, go out or enter the show's world as he sees fit.

The truth is that I sincerely wanted to experience this special and curious event and went to Jerusalem on a Saturday night after verifying with the public relations people at the Cameri Theater (the production's Israeli partner) that I could cope with the experience despite being handicapped and having to move on crutches with difficulty.

I cannot write about the show because I could not cope with the task and left in the middle. The location and the show are not suitable for people who have difficulty walking. Indeed, the people at the box office caution those who want to buy tickets and hide nothing.

In a way there is an historical-poetic justice here: At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century there was no awareness of disabled people's handicaps and this theatrical experience searches for authentic buildings of that era.

Besides that, Alma Mahler herself was one of the followers of Nietzsche's philosophy and took as her motto his saying that he "whoever falls should also be pushed."

I saw only the opening scene where all the characters appear. Aviva Marks, as the 130-year-old Alma, greeted the audience who represented her guests in English, and extended the welcome to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who allowed her - so she said - the use of the premises.

He was busy, part of the time reading and texting on his cell-phone, and though I usually abhor such viewers, I was rather happy and felt safer that this particular spectator remained on his post even when attending a show.

The actors were Austrian and Israeli and the show was presented in a mixture of Hebrew and English. Doron Tavori played Mahler, who collapsed on the table right near me, and Adi Gilat was one of the young Almas (all of them were amazingly sexy and provocative).

I tried to continue participating in the experience but had to climb or descend steps to almost every room. Between them was a long corridor and branches of that corridor with a step or two in the middle. Therefore I cannot write a thing about the show even though I really wanted to do so (that is to see and to write) and as far as I could tell it was very promising.

This theatrical form is not exactly a unique novelty. A dinner theater show called "Tony and Tina's Wedding" was staged in New York in the 1980s. "Arbeit Macht Frei" by Dudi Maayan's group, was shown in Acre more than 20 years ago, and also took the audience through a trip that was an exhausting experience.

All these are legitimate attempts by the theater at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries to break out of the bourgeois framework of an auditorium with passive seated spectators and a stage where some artificial world exists.

It is also a (desperate?) endeavor to cope with the competition of the movies, the television and the Internet. There is an attempt to create a "reality" that shatters the convention of a fourth invisible wall and a make-believe set.

One can assume that a contemporary palace in Vienna is a more realistic setting. But the furniture is a theatrical prop there (and in Jerusalem even more so) like on any stage. And don't kid yourselves that this is not a bourgeois event: An audience in its best clothes, a cocktail before the event begins and a meal in the middle is the height of bourgeoisie - which always knows to keep in step with the times, as it is around the world, and not to be satisfied with a theater but to search for the "experience."

Every such event must be examined on its own merits, because it is as good as the specific spectator's experience. If it interested him, excited him, made him think, was "different," he or she will say it was an experience.

If not, the spectator will probably leave in the middle and slam it. This is one of the efforts of the long-established ancient fields of arts (literature, theater) to be interactive and polyphonic, like the Internet, or "life." However, a significant part of the well-established arts is that they were not interactive. They did not change with the spectator's whims. They remained as they had been: a book, a show. They were the things their creators wanted to create.

The audience was expected to be very active but not to do a thing in the real world: not to press a key, not flip over to page 54 nor go to a room he has to choose on his way. He had to experience "purposiveness without purpose", very active internally but not physically.

True, people are programmed so that physical activity need not hinder their emotional and mental activity, but that does demand a multi-tasking ability. I do not know whether that is good, bad or does not matter. Perhaps it is like Hagashash Hahiver's sketch, "The Painters." They went to paint Dr. Lichtig Bar-Zohar's clinic:

Poly: Doctor, do you cure the dancers? Shaike: No, I teach them. Poly: And you make a living out of that? Shaike: No, but it's an experience.

I cannot even say that. But you, if you go, will be able to say after seeing Alma, "Nu, and this is a show?" And answer: "No, but it's an experience." Or perhaps: "Nu, and this was an experience?" And answer: "No, but it's a living."