Stage Animal Grabbing the Ibex by the Horns

As a veteran theater critic (veteran being a kinder word than elderly or aging), I'm aware that my taste may be considered outdated or fossilized, especially by a new generation of theater professionals and audiences. And I admit that every fiber of my being is tied to the text of the production. Moreover, I prefer productions that I can describe in words and view as a process that seeks to achieve something, and either succeeds or fails.

But for that very reason, I occasionally force myself to visit places where they seek to do something "other," despite my reservations about "otherness." With all my heart, I favor understanding and sympathy for "the other," but I'm a bit suspicious about "other" theater. If the main criterion is "otherness," then a chair, for example, is "other" theater - because it is other than theater.

Above all, I recoil from things I see too often, of a school very popular in our times - the "Why Not" school. This school's aesthetic principle is that after watching one of its manifestations you ask, "But why... (did you do it this way; did you do it at all?)," and get the conclusive answer: "Why not?"

These remarks about my prejudices are a preface to my experiences at the fifth A-Genre Festival at Tel Aviv's Tmuna Theater. Tmuna, incidentally, is a very likable place. I've seen some interesting things there (and some less interesting), but I've never seen a performance there play to an empty hall, and that in itself is praiseworthy, as it is a venue for experimental, "fringe" activities.

The curators have proven theatrical and production records: Yair Vardi (who directs the Suzanne Dellal Center's dance activity) and Nava Zuckerman (one of Tmuna's founders). The program notes had some rough dimensions, as if to refute the definition "interdisciplinary" (terrific, because usually what tries to be interdisciplinary merely falls between the cracks of two disciplines). So I left my reservations at home and set out on Friday for just over two hours of innovation.

I started with "Exercise (07.01.2009)," written and performed by Saar Szekely, a work developed under the direction of Ruth Kanner at Tel Aviv University. Inside a rectangular space delineated by four black screens, Szekely created in six scenes, in words and movement, a space different from the one he and the audience were in. He depicted a room, with mattresses on the floor, a door and window with broken panes. In this room - and this we were given to understand without it being said explicitly - sat refugees. In a nearly reportorial way, he described the room in great detail, including the feel of the mattress and the combination formed by the stripes on a child's pants and the color of the mattress, as if to tell the audience what to imagine - while it was perfectly clear to both him and the audience that this was a conscious exercise in visual imagination, and in reality there was nothing apart from the words.

Then, he disappeared from the space into one of the corners, leaving us with the knowledge that there is nothing apart from what we created in our imaginations. This was an extreme embodiment of the theatrical illusion, which creates a fictive reality that we believe partly because we know it is imagined.

The question is, what does one do next with the quality this exercise showed? And how can it be used as an element in a work that is something beyond an exercise?

The third event was "Yuval Meskin Smokes and Talks (Provisional Title)." Yuval is actor Aharon Meskin's youngest son and actor Amnon Meskin's younger brother. From personal acquaintance, I can testify that he is a charming person, matchless in his ability to remember and tell jokes. His entire personality says "relaxed" and "nonchalant." He is also an enthusiastic patron of every theater event that tests boundaries, and (unlike me) an enthusiastic disciple of "otherness."

His idea, and that of "director" Roy Naveh (the quotation marks are part of the gimmick), was "to test the boundaries of theater in real time." That is, not to rehearse, to provide some amusing entertainment (of the late-night television variety) and to joke around in a way that ridicules all the experimental pomposity.

For example, they played a Zahava Ben song and made a big deal of her correct pronunciation of the Hebrew letter "resh": At every word that had a resh, Meskin would wave a sign with the letter on it, terming this a kind of choreography.

What can I say? Yuval is a sweet person, but I'm not sure it's necessary to do this in front of a formal audience. True, this is a-genre. But it also isn't anything else.

Shir Freibach is a professional who writes, translates and acts in fringe theater. Like Meskin's performance, her show "Dead Happy" bore the mark of a single personality, hers. She created it (along with Maya Weinberg) and acts in it.

But while Meskin's performance is about nothing, hers is about everything. This is her story - of a lesbian who went to London, met a gay Scotsman named John Campbell who had AIDS, married him and performed with him. And then he died.

In its complexity, her event - with its Santa Claus costumes, to the sound of a cheerful Christmas song, and the box with his ashes sitting there, center stage - raises some of the same questions as Meskin's. But the motor driving it - the painful personal story at its base, a kind of adaptation of a life experience into a work of art - was strong enough to justify every moment.

The event that capped the two hours was "0.5 Chicos." Its title, as well as a statement at its conclusion by one of its creators, Ariel Ephraim Eshbal and Maya Dunitz, indicate it has a sequel. I doubt I will make an effort to see the second half.

In the performance itself - executed by Efrat Aviv and Ariel Cohen, two very skilled dancers/actors/acrobats - Eshbal and Dunitz showed great inventiveness in their use of props: microphones and amplifiers located in various places in the performers' mouths and on their bodies; texts on sexuality by Sigmund Freud and Guillaume Apollinaire; and a sex act explicitly described in dialogue, with energetic calisthenics and vocal effects.

"The strange and varied relationships in an encounter between body and sound and between musical material prepared in advance and an improvised text dictate the composition, both at the musical level and the staging-visual level" - so says the program. I couldn't have described it better. This is a lot of skill that has nothing to say except itself, just as the foregoing sentence says nothing about the work it describes.

I would like to conclude with a work that was nearly hidden among the others, perhaps because it was so much more modest with respect to its creators' ego. Called "Do Animals Have Memory," it was defined as "audio-visual ping-pong." The creators were musician Guy Scharf and director and theatrical set designer Amit Drori. There were sounds on the stage, but mostly there were objects. These were executed with such charm that despite their tiny dimensions, in quite a large space, they aroused interest and even excitement.

I would like especially to describe the ibex: an animal that stood about 30 centimeters high. Even from a distance, one could see it was built with enormous thought and care out of scores of small pieces of wood. It moved on four transparent Perspex wheels by means of a tiny electric motor and a remote control.

Ostensibly a mechanical toy and a technical achievement, the movement of this ibex, with its delicate head and its large curving horns, was full of elegant poetry. A few minutes in the presence of this ibex as it moved through the acting space, with the right lighting and the right music (the creators hid inside a tent of plastic sheets set up on the spot), and all the talk about genre and otherness and skill and content seemed entirely superfluous. This ibex had no meaning; more accurately, it was its own meaning. For the ibex alone, it was worth coming. I hope to meet it again some day.