Two soldiers stand on stage, saluting and hitting one another on the behinds. The actors are members of the Babaganoush troupe, starring in a new comedy show on Channel 10. The Jerusalem group's next comic sketch is about the umpteenth Tze'elim tragedy.
"We'll find a guard, it doesn't matter which one," says the beret-wearing soldier to calm the commander mounting the stage. "Everything is under control; I'm looking for a low-ranking soldier to blame."
Standing with their profiles to the audience, they gesture broadly and break out in song like an army band - but their lyrics are a little different. "Cover my ass (the wedding hall has fallen down), cover my ass (I lost another Australian)," they sing.
Babaganoush went on the air about a month ago on Channel 10. It was first broadcast on Friday nights and rerun on Saturday nights; now it is only shown on Saturday nights at midnight. The program was received with mixed reviews, although there were those who raved that it was unique.
The actors are graduates of the Nissan Nativ Acting Studio: Noyit Amsalem, Yair Lehman, Tomer Ofner, Eran Kraus, Adin Fein and Uri Seidov. They also appear in two Jerusalem clubs, the Yellow Submarine and Incubator. They seem to be more grateful for having a television slot, than disappointed by the cancellation of one of the program's time-slots.
"When discussing what makes the group unique, it is important to note that we are from Jerusalem, and not just geographically. We grew up in Jerusalem artistically," says Noyit Amsalem, who was named the group's up-and-coming star.
For all intents and purposes, Amsalem seems to maintain a purely secular lifestyle, but she defines herself as religious. "Many of my characters are influenced by the religious world," she says.
At the same time, she has no problem playing sexy characters, "so long as they are dressed and not too revealingly." Amsalem and her fellow group member Yair Amsalem, who was once observant, put on a show for religious audiences called "Datlifim," a made-up acronym meaning "sometimes religious."
Amsalem, who was born in Alabama and lives in Jerusalem's French Hill neighborhood, is both charming and funny; she is garrulous and tends to make faces. It is clear that there is never a dull moment with her. "So far, I have never repeated any of the characters I have done," she says.
Yair Lehman also commands attention. When he, like other members of the troupe, is asked to say something about himself, he says, "I was adopted by a gorilla," and mimics a monkey's gait.
"Their background is a little different from that of most television comics," explains Arik Eshet, the group's artistic manager and the director of the Nissan Nativ school. "Their sketches feature characters that one isn't likely to see hanging around in Tel Aviv. One doesn't usually hear quotes from the Bible in Tel Aviv sketches."
These characters were not only inspired by religion and politics, but also by ordinary Jerusalem types whom one could meet on a city bus, such as the Russian stand-up comic that Uri Seidov invented ("Is there anyone here from Odessa?" he asks in a heavy accent). Because of his accent, the character's leitmotif is immediately picked up and stays with you.
Eshet discusses the group in a fatherly tone. "There is no celebrity atmosphere. They are relatively free of pressure and show-off attitudes. They lack the cliches of the Tel Aviv stand-up clubs," he says.
His protective stance stems from the fact that the group lived in Eshet's home for a year in something of a commune in his Mesilat Zion moshav. During that year, he prepared them for their performances in Jerusalem clubs, and, afterwards, presented Telad with their joint project for Channel 10.
The members of the troupe write their own texts. "We try the texts out on one another and see how they come out," explains Seidov. "We don't exactly write sketches," he says. "They start out as an improvisation and then we work on it. I get into the character, and then I say, `I'll try it with someone.' I put it on for Yair Lehman or Tomer Ofner and if they say it's great, I write it down real fast. That's what happened with the Yemenite woman character," he recalls. "I based her on the grandmother of a friend of mine, who died a week after we shot the sketch."
There is an uproar in the freezing GG studios in Tel Aviv. The stage upon which they will perform looks like something that the "Platfus" group left behind a few years ago.
"The transition to television required a smaller, more focused performance in front of the cameras," explains Eshet. "But, in essence, it remains a performance in front of an audience, filmed continuously."
When asked if the program needs to adapt itself more to television, Eshet, like other members of the group, responds that even if there were more outdoor scenes, the actors would still be "more connected to theater."
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