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The elegant spaces inside the Knights Hall of Acre's Old City were a sharp contrast to the gloomy atmosphere outside. On the grass lawns of the Israeli Fringe Theater Festival, which ended last Thursday, there were just a few people wrapped in raincoats and clutching umbrellas. The alleys of the Old City were empty. There was nothing reminiscent of the usually crowd-filled festival. Even the hummus restaurants had no customers and most closed in the early afternoon. Even the pomegranate-juice seller gave up and left. "There's no income this year," complained workers at the Abu George restaurant, echoing the opinion of local merchants.

For the first time since its inception 29 years ago, the Acre Festival took place on Hanukkah. Local merchants are angry over the cancellation of the original festival during Sukkot. The reason for it, they say, is Mayor Shimon Lankri, who wanted to court the local Jewish population ahead of the municipal elections. But Mayor Lankri, who was reelected, seemed satisfied as he visited the festival complex with its top manager, Albert Ben Shlush. He says he never gave up on the event, and the effort paid off.

To a large extent, he was right. The tent set up for the outdoor events was empty for many hours during the day. But the indoor halls were filled with crowds. Theater lovers, including acting students from the theater departments of schools around the country, did not miss the chance to show up.

A house with no men

And what was presented in the auditoriums was certainly interesting. There was a genuine attempt to test the limits of the genre. The Israeli Fringe Theater Festival this year was a festival of women and about women. Six of nine plays in the competition were by talented women artists and directors, including Tal Brenner ("The Spud Zone"), Sharon Meyevski ("In the Name of Zion") and Ruthie Osterman ("Two-and-Twenty Pictures").

Almost all the other plays also dealt with women and their world. "The Olive Harvest" by Nahd Basheer described 24 hours in the lives of three women in a house devoid of men. Robeh Balal, who starred in the play, won the best actress award. In "The Burial of a Donkey," Honi ha-Me'agel tried to say something about the hypocrisy of burial rites. The performance's climax was the rebirth of ha-Me'agel himself, this time as a woman.

Most of the plays in the competition, however, were too long. The same was true of the winning play, "Two-and-Twenty Pictures," which could have used some tightening. Osterman, who both wrote and directed, depicts the effects of World War II in the lives of three women - a grandmother, mother and daughter. Eynav Doron's fine set design used the Knights Hall well. Osterman's directing, with the assistance of Yael Libman, was effective, but not more than that. Nevertheless, the acting by Dalia Friedland, Bahat Calatchi and Osterman, who turned out to be a talented actress, was moving.

"Henya Pekelman," written and directed by Ben Avner Hecht, also was too long. It tells the story of a Zionist pioneer and theater usher who tried to become a leader of Israel's labor movement and eventually leapt to her death. The play, based on a book by Pekelman, is not sufficiently worked out. But Vered Schwartz's performance was impressive; she conveyed Pekelman's idealism. There was also beautiful music written by Oded Zehavi - some of the best music at the festival.

Tightening would also have benefited "The Madwomen of Jaffa" by Chava Ortman, Yael Navi and Roi Naveh. The story focuses on four marginal figures from Jaffa who try to live, unsuccessfully, in a world controlled by financial barons and politically connected figures. The persuasive acting by Navi, Ortman, Galia Yishai and Eran Bohm (who won the best actor award) overshadowed the uninspiring set design. Above all, Ortman's performance stood out, which raised the question of why this wonderful actress is not seen more often.

Tal Barnea and Sharon Meyevski created, directed and performed "In the Name of Zion," which excited the audience. Thanks to the great demand, another performance was added. But the competition's panel of judges - Shosh Reisman, Itzik Juli, Ali Suleiman, Miki-Ben Canaan and Eitan Levy - thought otherwise. The panel did give it an honorable mention, though, for "brilliant formulation of the concept and content, and very impressive physical, vocal and acting skills."

"In the Name of Zion" is a satirical cabaret through which Barnea and Meyevski look at Israeli society. It is a critical, cynical look, but with love for man. They appear in and on the scaffolding of a building site as metalworkers and use wonderfully designed puppets to comment on the role of the media, army, taxes, Israeli abrasiveness, machismo, the family and just about everything else. One of the nicer poetic images with the puppets is when Shula really does not make love with Shlomo because she is tired, but Shlomo really wants to and is not really concerned about anything else.

A world devoid of meaning

The judges were impressed by "A Little Vacation" directed by Nava Frenkel, and gave it the promising artist prize for creating "a nucleus of a new language." But the play is a collection of gestures, phrases and objects that do not combine to create a whole picture, certainly not a play that puts together "a human-familial and familial-national puzzle" as the creator meant to do.

The promising actor award should have gone to Tal Brenner, who wrote and directed "The Spud Zone." The absurd play describes a family whose existence revolves around potatoes as they live under the constant shadow of war. In the play, potatoes become a symbol of human existence in a nihilistic and meaningless world. In this world it is forbidden to dream, but one girl dares to.

Brenner's directing tried to perpetuate moments in the life of the family by freezing the characters' movements. The music performed by Yuval Shapira intensified the sense of cessation. The set design by Eran Atzmon, who succeeded in conveying a decadent world, was the most impressive of all the competition's set design.

"RPM - Revolutions Per Minute" was perhaps the only work whose length, just 30 minutes, corresponded to its content. The artist Eli Levy, lighting designer Tamar Or and musician Ori Drumer sought to check what happens to an object, light and sound when they meet in a theater space. In a play with no actors or words, these objects tried to conduct a dialogue, tell about themselves and move the plot. They succeeded only partially.

The short piece, which started a year ago as a 10-minute exercise in the Nisui Kelim project in Tel Aviv, had a few fine moments. In these moments, the dormant objects were imbued with life; for a moment there was a struggle between them and a kind of dialogue.

But these moments were too few and far between. Not a single one of the works was complete, not to mention perfect. Was the insistence on holding the festival at all costs justified? The answer is yes, even if only 4,000 people attended the festival and not the 200,000 that came in previous years. In Acre they are not looking for perfect plays; the search itself is the main thing, and that was there in abundance. They did not stop this search. Art prevailed.