What Makes Itay Tiran the New King of Israeli Theater?

What sets Tiran’s choices as a director apart is the fact that he chooses specific thematic materials that reflect a sensitivity that transcends the aesthetic and is, first and foremost, ethical.

One of the few things I learned − and remember − about examining and evaluating a work of art is the fusion of two words: “selection” and “combination.” In other words, what are the materials the creators have chosen for their work, and what are the principles that guided them in combining those materials?

The point of departure for director Itay Tiran and composer Dori Parnes ‏(who worked on the translation − mainly from English, I imagine, though, knowing him, he probably checked and compared with the German original − coadapted it with Tiran, wrote original music and orchestrated it‏) is the novel “Little Man, What Now?”, by the German writer Hans Fallada ‏(author of the international best-seller “Alone in Berlin”‏). And, it seems to me, that choice was anything but random.

The novel was written about and in early-1930s Germany, before Hitler rose to power but during his election campaign. It was a best-seller then, and two movies − a German and an American one − were based on it. The materials are the same as those utilized by Sebastian Haffner in his 1939 memoir “Defying Hitler.” It is the story of people in a democratic state, amid the reality of a capitalistic economy that is hell-bent on crashing, while they try to live their lives uprightly. They are ground down by the surrounding reality, and, without being accountable to themselves, allow the advent of the horrific future − we, as contemporary readers, know what it will be − that brings about their own perdition.

We must avoid comparisons, of course, because in the current Israeli consciousness, Germany was and always will be the place from which the extermination of the Jews emerged and in which it was perpetrated by the Germans ‏(and their henchmen‏). The Jewish issue appears only incidentally, articulated by a Jewish woman ‏(one of five parts played brilliantly by Irit Kaplan in the play‏), whom the protagonist − who is not a Jew − meets by chance and whose story he is not eager to hear. She is trying to sell lingerie door to door, but people refuse to buy because she is a Jew. All she asks is that the anti-Semites note this fact on their door, as this will spare both her and them unpleasantness.

Fallada’s 1932 novel is the story of Germans in particular historical circumstances, when they were still − most of them − “people” and not only “Germans,” and also little. We, too, are all in the end people, and also little ‏(most of us‏) before and after we are Israelis and Jews. And we, too, just like the heroes of the book and the play − the young woman “Meh-Meh” ‏(Lammchen, or little lamb, in the German original, and a choice that suddenly seems not accidental‏) from a working-class family; and the young man “Ktani” ‏(from the Hebrew for “little”; Johannes Pinneberg in the original‏), a white-collar worker ‏(parallel to our “middle class”‏) − live in a day-to-day reality of swinish capitalism. For what other name befits a state of affairs in which salespeople in department stores are given sales quotas, and if they do not meet them ‏(because consumer buying power is eroded by inflation‏), they are fired; and in which the employer is said to control the life of his employees, and their loyalty is above all to him ‏(or to the state‏) and only afterward, if at all, to themselves and their family?

We should also talk a little about the theater figure Itay Tiran, one of the most fascinating and original creative artists in the Israeli theater at the beginning of the 21st century. Tiran the director chose to adapt precisely this novel for the stage. In his first work as a director, he helmed “Woyzeck,” by the German playwright Georg Buchner. It’s a classic work but fragmented and incomplete, about a little man filled with goodwill ‏(a little like the heroes of “Little Man, What Now?”‏) who tries to survive and raise a family in a reality that crushes him.

Original artist

Ah, yes: Tiran the director is doing this while Tiran the actor is in the Cameri’s staging of “Cabaret,” playing the grotesque-monstrous emcee who seemingly amuses the cabaret guests in early 1930s Berlin ‏(and also the Israeli audience that is now viewing the entertaining musical, directed by Omri Nitzan‏). Yes, and he also started his career in the Cameri Theater in “Eye Witness” ‏(Joshua Sobol’s play about an Austrian conscientious objector in the Second World War‏), and was also the Nazi officer Kittel in Sobol’s “Ghetto.” The selection of the materials, and the fact that this creative artist ‏(actor and director‏) is the material and the creator in all of them, constitute a combination whose significance needs no elaboration.

We must remember that he is a young artist, not so far from the start of his theater career. He has just turned 33. And here it’s important to distinguish between Tiran’s choices as an actor − which in large measure are not in his hands but in those of theater managers and stage directors who employ him − and his choices as a director. True, he had the good fortune to be signed to a contract in 2002 by the Cameri’s artistic director, Omri Nitzan ‏(who has also directed him in six of his finest roles‏), immediately after he graduated from Beit Zvi School of the Performing Arts. But to those who saw him on the stage as an acting student ‏(in Racine’s “Britannicus,” for example‏), it was obvious that he is a rare talent and endowed with intelligence and discipline.

Accordingly, in the wake of “Eye Witness,” Tiran played one of the sons of Mother Courage, Hamlet in a production that is still running, two small comic roles ‏(in “Caviar and Lentils,” and as a young man with a particularly amusing speech defect in “A Flea in Her Ear”‏), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Kittel − all of them ‏(apart from one‏) directed by Nitzan. Then came “Richard II” and “Richard III,” under the direction of Arthur Kogan ‏(after he had already played Richard II in the Sifriya Theater‏), in a situation in which he continued to play both Hamlet and the emcee in “Cabaret,” while rehearsing for the two Richards.

Good choices

It is true that he is lucky as an actor and is justifying the hopes placed in him by theater managers and directors. In contrast, the very fact that he is displaying an interest in directing was not self-evident. To be a director requires the ability − which few actors possess − not to see yourself in the center, even if you have an acting part in the production you are directing. What sets Tiran’s choices as a director apart is both the fact that he does not choose what already exists ‏(plays that have been tried and tested‏) and impresses with a sure and effective hand, but also chooses specific thematic materials that reflect a sensitivity that transcends the aesthetic and is, first and foremost, ethical.

Just as he is adept at choosing materials ‏(though I would very much like to see him cope as a director with a classical play that would challenge him precisely within the limitations it sets‏), he is also good at choosing his creative partners. First of all, Dori Parnes − a musician with a wide-ranging cultural perspective − who forges a musical framework for the play that renders it almost a musical, by adapting period songs into the production ‏(his explanations about the songs in the program are illuminating‏). And also Polina Adamov, who for this production created the revolving stage, which is also an image of quasi-entertaining giddiness that dizzies and agitates the protagonists’ lives and makes it possible to show the center ‏(the young couple tries to create its island of happiness in all places and apartments‏) and the fringes, which revolve ever faster, until the center cannot hold.

I am less enthusiastic about the videos that are screened ‏(in collaboration with Katya Shepalayeva‏), mainly because they are lost when the revolving stage hides them part of the time. However, I am filled with admiration for the costumes, designed by Adamov, which draw their inspiration from the painters of the period ‏(ranging from George Grosz − for example, the two characters brought to life by actor Dudu Niv − to Otto Dix and Christian Schad‏). The lighting, by Avi-Yona Bueno, shapes vividly the bittersweet and depressing atmosphere, and spotlights the characters and episodic moments.

With this backing, Tiran is able to direct the play with a very confident, stylistic hand and set forth a story whose power lies not in its dramatic upheavals or plot twists. The power of the story − and also its shortcoming − lies in its being linear and known beforehand: with honesty and naivete, Meh-Meh and Ktani try to forge their small happiness, which rests on their love. They are well aware of the dangers. Time and again they encounter the cruelty and arbitrariness of people, though also occasional good-heartedness. Not for a moment do they lose their faith, almost until the end, that everything could yet be good. Maybe this is the tragedy of little people like them: that even in the depths of despair, they persuade themselves that everything will work out.

Sure hand

So far I have written about the choice of material, the adaptation and the stylistic design, which is elaborate and forged by a very sure hand, together with creative and imaginative partners. No less admirable is the choice of the actors and the qualities they display. There are clearly two groups of actors here, constituting a very impressive troupe both in its range of abilities and its deep involvement in the play.

One group consists of veteran, highly experienced actors, who could teach Tiran a thing or two. Above all, there is Yossi Graber, who started his acting career with the Cameri before Tiran was born and is continuing to create extraordinary characters in the eighth decade of his life. In this production he fashions two diverse characters: One is the little man’s employer, Mr. Lehmann − icy, threatening, bloodcurdling. But I want to dwell on the second role, as the widow Scharrenhofer. As an actor, Graber sometimes tends to gush beyond the boundaries of the role with animated charm. Here he is dry, precise and restrained, and creates a presence that is not of this world.

Gadi Yagil also creates several delightful characters ‏(the adaptation by Tiran and Parnes allows the actors to display the whole peacock’s tail of their qualities‏), including an amusing part as a Berlin matron. However, his major presence in the play is as Mr. Jachmann, the suitor-partner-victim of the hero’s mother. This is a development and adaptation of the character of the Jewish widower from “Cabaret.”  He is enthusiastic and rousing, magnetic and frightening, and until the last minute it is not clear whether he is the victim of circumstances or has capitalized on them.

Helena Yaralova has created several impressive roles in the Cameri Theater and gained high recognition. Her parts in the Richard plays ‏(particularly “Richard III”‏) showed her as a fine classical actress ‏(and in Hebrew, too‏). Here she demonstrates her ability as the star of a musical theater ‏(as a cabaret entertainer along the lines of Marlene Dietrich in “The Blue Angel”‏) and as the hero’s devouring and devastating mother, a drunk, brutal yet touching woman who is both the star of the play and a significant element in the ensemble. I hope the Cameri will again mount a production, preferably from the classical repertoire, to utilize her qualities, like in Edna Mazya’s “Was it a Dream?”.

The lion’s share of the troupe for “Little Man” is from the Beit Zvi School. Like Tiran himself, they emerged, to one degree or another, in the shadow of the broad mantle of the school’s director for more than a quarter of a century, the late Gary Bilu. Each of them has abundant opportunities to function as small cogs in a well-oiled machine, and to shine in a role of a few minutes or a few scenes. Yoav Levy is the heroine’s father; a workmate of the hero; his manager in the department store; and the midwife − four different characters, each done to perfection. Gil Weinberg creates five characters of both sexes ‏(he and Levy are from Tiran’s graduating class at Beit Zvi‏). Guy Alon also plays five roles, in two of which he is particularly superb − as a Berlin woman, and the actor Franz Schluter, who brings about the hero’s dismissal − and he also choreographed the show. And Yossi Tzabari steals the show as Heilbutt, a body-culture man in the spirit of Nazi culture.

For the parts of the couple that drives the story forward, Tiran cast Eran Mor and Dana Meinert ‏(the only actor who did not attend Beit Zvi − she was at Yoram Loewenstein’s Performing Arts Studio‏). In contrast to the other characters, whose role is to be colorful and sharp-contoured, what’s needed from them is the ability to project an almost extreme degree of innocence. Tiran and Parnes forgo the scene in which they meet − they find each other on the shore of a lake, far from the madding crowd, in passionate love at first sight. Mor, who is slightly more experienced than his partner, gains the viewer’s affection almost immediately. Meinert is called upon to create a childish character at the start, even though the practicality of Meh-Meh is what will save the young couple through most of their life. For this she gets compensation in the form of a captivating song in the second half. She is also the one who bears the flag of hope, even at the melancholy end of the plot that has unfolded on the stage.

I take it that the reader has understood that I was impressed by both the selection and the combination of the materials of this production. The one question that intrigues me is: Itay Tiran, as actor and director, what now?
“Little Man, What Now?” is on in repertory at the Cameri Theater, Tel Aviv.

Gerard Allon
Gabriel Baharlia
Gadi Dagon
Gerard Allon