The Beautiful and the Noble

Joshua Sobol's renowned play 'Ghetto,' which examines the humane under subhuman conditions, gets an excellent staging at the Cameri Theater.

Since first being staged at the Haifa Municipal Theater in 1984, Joshua Sobol's play "Ghetto" has been produced 66 times (about half of those in Germany and Austria), in over 15 languages. It is unquestionably the most well-known Israeli play in the world.

The production, which at its premier was seen as a daring artistic gamble that aroused quite an uproar, is now returning as a cultural relic and safe bet in which Tel Aviv's Cameri Theater is investing all its resources.

In 2010, there are probably Cameri theatergoers who were not even born when "Ghetto" was first staged in the Haifa Theater. Although the Holocaust still serves as useful currency in political commerce, our way of approaching the issues related to it has changed substantially. "Ghetto," a play about a theater inside the ghetto, the humane in subhuman conditions, is probably interpreted differently by audience members who've seen "Inglourious Basterds" at the movies.

And yet this is still theater about a theater in the ghetto. The key arguments for presenting the subject of the play - and of the play itself - are illustrated by two main scenes. One is the initial reaction of Bundist librarian Herman Kruk (in a convincing performance by Eli Gorenstein - in terms of appearance, including the character's unruly hair, and intellectual and emotional involvement), upon hearing that the head of the Judenrat in the ghetto, Jacob Gens, has ordered the establishment a theater. Kruk declares (and even hangs posters all over the ghetto with the same message): "No theater in a graveyard."

Gens (played in a very human way by Nathan Dattner, who seems to have benefited from the warmth he exuded as Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof" in this portrayal of a controversial figure) explains his decision to establish a theater by the fact that it enables him to get work permits, which are essentially life-saving tickets for Jews who would otherwise be sent to the camps. Gens sees his task as a moral mission as well. "People are walking around with their heads in the ground," he says. "They have lost any sense of self worth. You can lift their morale, give them a feeling that they're human beings. That they have a language, a culture, a great heritage."

Gens here ignores something that Kruk understands: If you behave in a humane way in inhumane conditions, this helps the Nazis achieve their goal - to dull the Jews' alertness and fool them into a sort of complacency and thus makes their work of destruction easier.

The other half of that basic argument can be seen toward the end of the play. Hayaleh, whose life was saved thanks to her ability to sing and to captivate the Nazi officer Kittel (Ania Bukstein in an impressive performance by any criterion, perhaps less dramatic than Riki Gal in the debut, but no less convincing and moving - for example in her rendition of the first song, opening with fear and anxiety and ending with a sense that she is singing for her life) comes to Kruk's library in everyday clothes, looking for manuals that will teach her how to make bombs. She did theater in the ghetto and saved her life by doing so, as well as her humanity. Kruk becomes convinced that theater in the ghetto was the right thing. She, however, has grave doubts about it.

This debate exists to a certain degree in the present staging of the play. Every time I was impressed at the theatrical work, mainly - but not only - during the scenes capturing theater on the stage, which as we remember takes place in the ghetto; every time I was uplifted and felt a desire to applaud the performance of songs and dances from the theater within the theater, or of the present-day theater, I felt uncomfortable. As though my reaction should have been a disturbed silence. As though the artistic achievements in that situation, and in light of the subject, are unimportant, unworthy of being judged by their artistic merit. In some instances, it felt like director Omri Nitzan's production at the Cameri Theater was too good, calls attention to itself because of the quality of the work, while the agenda should really focus on other, more substantial subjects.

That is of course my problem. But after seeing the play, I felt like Hayaleh at its end and Kruk at its beginning. Both convinced me. I of course understand the need for high quality theatrical work both then and now - and I know how to appreciate the achievement. I understand Gens' logic and even tend to be convinced by his arguments, but something in me rebelled. And perhaps that is actually the play's achievement: The broad range between the beautiful and the noble, the despicable and the contemptible, that hides under this "humaneness." And here there is no escaping that, in an odd way, there is no show business like Shoah business.

This is also the subject of both the play and the performance: If you are fighting for "humaneness," you must be prepared to be exposed to the beautiful and ugly aspects of it. That includes moral idealists like Kruk, and people who are capable of sacrificing themselves - like Srulik and his dummy (respectively, the warm and enchanting Gadi Yagil, and the amazing Hani Furstenberg in the physical work - even if she could have achieved more with more varied vocal work). It also includes contemptible phenomena, Jews who personify the worst anti-Semitic caricatures - like Weiskopf, who tries to profit in every situation until he loses his human sense of proportion (Rami Baruch, who was not afraid to push the boundaries of the character).

Of course there are passages in the play which are in good taste and those that go beyond, mainly in the scenes that crudely manipulate the audiences' emotions, of which there are many (the scene with the children, for example). To Nitzan's credit, it should be said that he was extremely successful in his precise staging, which walks the proper line between the correct and the incorrect, and in avoiding the pornographic trap of the play's orgy scene, which is quite horrific to read (and not for the right reasons).

The character of Nazi officer Kittel stands somewhere beyond the conflicting elements of the play. He is not part of its ethical dilemmas, which belong to the Jews and the audience; he is the epitome of evil, which to a great extent releases the actor from any inhibitions. It is interesting, incidentally, that Doron Tavori, who originally played the role (and anyone who saw him was shocked by the character who combined the satanic with the charming), also played Hamlet, just like Itay Tiran. Tiran is fascinating every time he appears on stage, in his portrayal of every type of activity, from the simple to the threatening. He is very impressive in his drunken scene where, in addition to the usual virtuoso performance, he must add the dimension of a body that is not under control and perform it with perfect control of his body.

Here we must add a note of admiration that is a bit off-topic. At a certain moment in the play, Tiran holds a saxophone and Bukstein sits at the piano and sings. Theatergoers have become accustomed to the fact that Tiran is a pianist, an ability he demonstrated in both "Hamlet" and "Amadeus," while Bukstein has performed as an actress, mainly in television and film, and as a singer and actress (in "Oliver"). Here these two performers take on Gershwin's "Swanee," in song, and on piano and saxophone - an accomplished musical performance. Suddenly you stop thinking about the subjects of the play and admire the talent and ability of these two young people.

Alongside the issue of theater in the graveyard, the play, and in its wake the performance, lifts up the character of the Jew who does not become pure because of his suffering; the same "dirty" Jews, even if that is what they were and didn't stop being during the extermination (like Weiskopf) and those who "became dirty," like Gens, the head of the Judenrat. In the 1980s, and to a great degree today as well, there is a tendency to judge them harshly, in no small degree because we were not in their place.

Gens, as played by Dattner, is a person without illusions. He knew that he was sacrificing Jews in order to save Jews, that he was collaborating in order to save lives, and he knew that he would pay the price. Dattner is very impressive in exposing the complex, humane and fearless sides of the character. A small scene at the end, in which he calls to order the police chief Desler, who does the revolting work of obeying the Nazis, and demands that he at least not show enthusiasm in his actions, proves that there are no small roles. Or, in fact, that there are moments on stage that require an outstanding actor. In this case Oded Leopold, in a one-line role: "If you do this work, what difference does it make how you do it? You're staying here, and I'm going. Don't preach to me." (And if I'm not mistaken, in the 2010 version a sentence has been added about the two meeting in hell.)

If Tiran is impressive and fascinating in the role of Kittel, he is even more amazing in the role of Dr. Paul, Kittel's alter ego, in his conversations with Kruk. It seems that the major rewriting of the play has been done here. In the 1980s, the prominent tone of these dialogues was that people like Gens will be the ones who, in the end, will implement Zionism in the State of Israel. This message has not disappeared, but has been blurred.

However, an exchange has been added about the fact that Paul is the one torturing the Bundist Kruk for his opposition to Zionism. Kruk explains the possibility that the Arabs in Palestine may not hate the Jews any less than the Nazis hate them. This enables Sobol to put the ironic line right into Paul's mouth (in light of the comparisons made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hitler): "It's possible that the Arabs will hate you more than we do."

Set designer Roni Toran and lighting director Felice Ross place the action of the play in an iron cage being guarded by armed soldiers above and under the spotlight, even if there is no strict closure of the events on stage. The costumes are almost characters in themselves in this production; my only reservation is about Hayaleh's overly elegant clothing in her final scene, where she is wearing tailored pants. But I need this reservation so that my admiration for this important performance - of a play that is more an instrumental score for theater than a text, and which is impressively performed under a conductor who knows how to activate the theatrical orchestra and loves doing so - will be more credible.

"Ghetto," by Joshua Sobol. Director: Omri Nitzan. Sets: Roni Toran. Costumes: Orna Smorgonsky. Music: Yossi Ben Nun. Choreography: Oz Morag. Lighting: Felice Ross.