On the fourth floor of an abandoned building in the heart of old Tel Aviv, actors are rehearsing "Hamehagrim" ("The Emigrants"). In a dark room, partly draped in a black cloth to keep the light out, director Igor Berezin sits on a rickety chair. A small tape recorder next to him emits the play's sound track. The rehearsal is about to start, ahead of their debut (this past Tuesday) at the Simta Theater in Jaffa. The run-through will not be halted; there will be no break. Berezin tries to hide the tension he is feeling.
Actors Vitaly Voskoboinikov and Dima Ross burst out of the adjacent room; they have been rehearsing here for four months, for a paltry salary. Both belong to Tel Aviv's Malenky Theater, one of the country's leading fringe theater groups, which Berezin founded about a decade ago.
Ross, 36, who lives in Tel Aviv's Florentin neighborhood, earns the highest monthly salary of the group's actors: NIS 3,000. To make enough money to repay his debts, he does a TV commercial every few months - and then starts racking up more debt. Voskoboinikov, 30, lives in Bat Yam. His acting salary is NIS 2,500 a month. He subsidizes this career by working as a security guard at a hotel and in the Holon industrial zone.
The actors find their places on the set, comprised of two beds separated by a small metal table. The water and sewage pipes in the background compliment the play's setting: an underground apartment. Berezin is a firm believer of keeping the actor in the center of the play, ascribing little importance to lighting, costumes and props. "They're just guests in the theater," he says.
One glance at the two actors - whose characters Polish playwright Slawomir Mrozek left unnamed - is enough to figure out who's who. Ross, thin and small, plays the intellectual, AA; the heavier-set Voskoboinikov plays the provincial, illiterate peasant, XX. Both characters are immigrants, as are the actors who play them: Ross moved to Israel in 1992 and Voskoboinikov in 1995.
"Even if they're called olim [people who have moved to Israel], they're still immigrants," comments Berezin.
Mrozek, a Polish writer associated with the Theater of the Absurd, is himself an immigrant. He moved from Poland to France and then Mexico in the 1970s, returned to Poland in 1996 and has been living in Krakow ever since. The play was first put on in Israel in 1977, by Jerusalem's Khan Theater, directed by Michal Govrin.
AA and XX, whose past is unknown and whose future is unclear, argue about slavery and freedom, about the homeland and foreign shores, about here and there. The gap between the intellectual character and the provincial one diminishes as their encounter continues. It turns out that neither enjoys real freedom: XX is addicted to the money he has to earn, while AA is frozen in his idealism. Together, both are stuck on a path from which there is no escape. This is a play that forces the audience to be attentive and focused.
Like the characters and the actors playing them, director Igor Berezin is also an immigrant. He was born 48 years ago in Kazakhstan and moved to Israel in 1993. "Every immigrant brings something with him and leaves something behind," he says. "I have spent a long time looking for material that would allow me to say what I feel."
And how exactly do you feel about immigration?
Berezin: "Immigration seems to provide the answer to people's need to be reborn. But that's not really true. Former Soviet citizens, for instance, are slaves in their mentality, it doesn't matter where they are. It's genetic. It's a fear you're born with - fear of power, of the government. On the other hand, total freedom is boring. Lots of Russian people were broken precisely because of total freedom, because they didn't have anyone to fight."
Berezin adds that he is also plagued by such typical fears, "even though my entire life I have been trying to rid myself of the feeling of slavery. Anton Chekhov said he was trying to squeeze the slave out of himself drop by drop. I think everyone is a slave to something or someone. In capitalist regimes you're a slave to money, or even to freedom."
Presumably, Berezin's fear intensified after he was arrested by the KGB on charges of disseminating anti-communist propaganda, an incident he now relegates to his past history. Before immigrating, Berezin married a woman in Kazakhstan and had a daughter - his only child, now 28. He also studied theater in Moscow.
Berezin's encounter with the KGB has left a scar that remains to this day. The director has even introduced the secret police into the play: One of the reasons AA arrives at the underground hidden apartment is that he is fleeing the KGB.
Berezin: "A childhood friend, who founded an anti-Soviet association at university, got me tangled up with the KGB when he gave me the publicity material. In my fourth year of studies, the people in gray coats took me in for interrogation. I won't forget that meeting as long as I live, but I would never be able to recognize those faceless people. I trembled from fear during the entire interrogation. You suddenly feel how small and defenseless you are."
Berezin was expelled from his studies, thereby becoming freed up for the military service he did not want to do: "I was 21 years old at the time and already married with a 1-year-old baby. After the interrogation they threw me out of university. In order to evade military service, I had myself committed to a mental hospital. It wasn't easy because the doctor who examined me expected me to give him a bribe. When he didn't get one, he said I was healthy. But once he realized I was one of the university rebels, he said I was abnormal and hospitalized me. I was released after a month, and I got a white card that exempted me from service."
Berezin was also fired from the local TV station and the local theater where he had been working. He began dreaming of the stage while working as a soundman at a circus. At 27, divorced, he went to Moscow to study at the Russian Academy of Theater Arts, known as Gitis.
"I told myself that I need a laboratory to analyze both myself and life. The theater allows you to conduct such a simulation, to ask questions and get answers," he explains.
Berezin moved to Israel a year after finishing his studies. Within a year, his daughter, mother and grandmother joined him. He now lives in Florentin neighborhood.
Once here he first worked as a supermarket janitor and a security guard; he has also sold Russian books, washed dishes at a restaurant and folded newspapers at the printer's. And then he met two people - actor Michael Teplitsky and journalist Boris Yentin.
"We said we would establish a theater. Back then, we actually saw it as a joke," recalls Berezin. But that joke became reality, with Teplitsky and Yentin becoming Berezin's partners in founding the Malenky Theater. Ever the idealist, Berezin has turned the theater into an experimental showcase for plays based on literature as source material, giving them a unique twist.
The road to establishing the Malenky has been rocky. Its budget is inadequate, even for a very modest troupe. Some of the productions Berezin directed were canceled because there was no money to fund them. But he has also enjoyed several successes, like "Contrabass," which won first place in Israel's 2001 Teatronetto Festival. "The Stranger," based on the Albert Camus novel, won the Israel Theater Prize for best fringe performance, as well as best directing and best acting in the fringe category. "The Old Woman and the Miracle Worker" was performed in 2003 at the Tmuna Theater in Tel Aviv. Berezin has also directed "The Rose of Jericho," "Woyzech" and "Small Tragedies."
The achievements come despite having no set stage, no hall in which to rehearse and no place to store the sets. The group did start receiving some state funding in 2003, in the form of support from the Science, Culture and Sports Ministry on a project basis. In 2006, after being officially upgraded to the status of theater group, they began receiving an annual budget. But it isn't enough.
Berezin: "We had to pay for a hall for rehearsals and performances, even though as a fringe group, we weren't supposed to. We were forced to cancel 'Small Tragedies,' which we put on in the Gesher Theater hangar, because we could no longer afford the cost of renting the hall."
"The Emigrants" lasts two and a half hours, with no intermission. "We tried to have an intermission," says Ross. "But we found that our energy was lower after a break than during the first part. It was like starting everything from scratch."
Voskoboinikov adds: "It was hard for us to go back to the characters' emotional state after the break."
The two men are wonderful actors, very precise, with very good diction in Hebrew. Both studied acting at the Beit Zvi School in Ramat Gan. Both say their love of acting overcomes the low pay. "I have great roles, I engage in art, and I am paying a price for that," says Ross. Voskoboinikov admits the path he has chosen isn't simple, but says: "It seems like it's connected to my love for theater in general, and for Igor's [Berezin] theater in particular."
By the time the rehearsal is over, Berezin seems satisfied. "I don't like to impose form on content," he says. "And here the content dictated realism to me. I treated the material as psychological, realistic theater. Now I know that I can direct this genre, and it doesn't interest me anymore."
The director says he once dismissed repertory theater, calling it "the telenovella of the theater ... But now I can't say that anymore, because I have begun a dialogue with repertory theater. I'm interested in directing a Shakespearean or ancient Greek tragedy, or a 20th-century drama - like Harold Pinter or Tennessee Williams. To do that I need certain conditions, which only exist in repertory."
For all the difficulties that continue to beset Berezin and his under-funded theater group, he remains an idealist. "I define myself as an idealist, because I believe that people should strive to be better, that they should love each other and not hate, and that they need to think more about the spirit than the stomach," he says. "I'm like AA in the play, who realizes in the end that he should love people as they are. But his friend XX doesn't hear this optimistic speech, because he falls asleep, and his snoring becomes louder and louder."
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