'A Pigs' Opera'

Tunnels dug beneath the Austrian city of Linz during World War II, by prisoners from the Mauthausen concentration camp, provide the set for "Purimspil" - a play conceived by Israeli-born David Maayan, who is increasingly leaving his artistic mark on Europe. Playgoers are divided upon arrival into groups, which follow different paths through the tunnels into the bowels of the earth, and wind up in a cavernous wine cellar, which contains a very long and narrow stage similar to a catwalk. The audience watches from either side of this runway as the actors, in the role of Jewish prisoners from Mauthausen, recount the story of the Megillah (Book of Esther). The actors are dressed as pigs. One is Haman; another is King Ahasuerus. Why pigs? The Nazis called the prisoners Judenschwein - Jewish pigs.

Linz was selected as the 2009 European Capital of Culture, in the framework of which a host of "Linz 2009" events are being held. Ironically, this city was also supposed to be the culture capital of the Third Reich. The tunnels were dug to provide refuge for the city's residents during the war.

The idea for putting on a Purim spiel came from Airan Berg, who was born in Tel Aviv and moved at age 11 to Vienna, where his parents worked for Koor Industries. Berg was director of the alternative theater Vienna Schauspielhaus, and was appointed three years ago as Linz 2009's artistic director for performing arts. He and Maayan have collaborated for years, going back to when Berg (together with Sharon Nuni) translated Maayan's play "Arbeit macht frei," when it was staged in Vienna in 1994, following successes at the Acre fringe festival and at venues abroad.

"When he asked what I thought of the idea of putting on a Purim spiel in Linz, I immediately said yes," Maayan says. "I reread the Book of Esther, began delving into it. For me, Airan's offer was really an invitation - an opportunity to create a piece that would use artistic means to contend with the city's highly problematic past. In Austria they continue to repress what happened during the war, and the management of the Linz 2009 events decided that dealing with the city's past should take various artistic forms.

"When I first entered the tunnels underneath the city, I realized how appropriate it would be as a setting for the Purim spiel, how profound the repression is, and why it is so vital to shake up the audience again and again, and arouse it from its slumber."

Why choose the Purim spiel as the artistic means of shaking up the audience?

Maayan: "It is known that traditionally, during the Purim holiday, it is permissible to vent, to talk back to the ruler, to anyone in a position of authority. It is permissible to wear a mask, which enables the person behind it to go far. Total anarchy is allowed, and of course, you are allowed to drink until you can no longer distinguish between Mordechai and Haman, and between good and evil. From an artistic standpoint, these basic assumptions mean freedom, opening up creative possibilities in the best possible way."

Maayan's works have shaken up audiences ever since his plays "Second Generation Memories in the Bosom of the Old City" (1982) and "Arbeit macht frei" (1991), which were staged at the Acre festival and won first prize. Both deal with certain aspects of World War II. Maayan's "The Family Table," which has not made it to Israel yet, but was staged as a joint production of Vienna's Schauspielhaus and the Wiener Festwochen 2005, was one of the most talked-about productions at that annual festival, which featured 37 shows from 22 countries. For that piece, Maayan designed a table measuring 20 meters by 12 meters, and placed it at the abandoned train station in the western part of the city. The audience sat around the table: The action took place on top of and underneath it - the domestic drama, as well as the drama of society as a whole.

For "Purimspil," Maayan, 56, traveled to meet people in the Czech Republic, Vienna and Israel. The actors come from every corner of the world: Zimbabwe, Singapore, Croatia, Austria, and Israel, and include three students from Bruckner University in Linz, where Maayan teaches.

Joshua Sobol was enlisted to write the script, a fairly natural choice for a playwright, many of whose works have been seen in Austria and elsewhere in recent years.

"For many years," Maayan says, "Joshua and I dealt with similar materials from a different vantage point and within different theatrical environments. After all, Sobol's 'Ghetto' and my 'Arbeit macht frei' are different ends of the same stick. I mean that Sobol, as a major artist in the mainstream, dealt with the issue of the Holocaust in a conventional manner, in plays with a beginning, middle and end, while I dealt with it in the unconventional manner of slaughtering sacred cows. The encounter between us brings a type of closure; ultimately, we found a common denominator."

Sobol: "When Dudi [Maayan] proposed that I write the play, I traveled to Linz and saw the place. I also took part in an actors' workshop he ran there, and understood what could be done with them. The idea was to create a provocation through the Megillah story."

Maayan: "Joshua has a wealth of knowledge in extensive fields. His vast theatrical experience and wisdom constituted milestones in the creation of 'Purimspil.' I consider working with him a great privilege."

The choice to perform the play in Yiddish was perhaps less natural. "I wrote the whole text in Yiddish, but it's Germanicized Yiddish," Sobol explains. "In other words, I opted to use Yiddish words that come from German, rather than to use equivalent words that come from Hebrew. After all, the basis for Yiddish is medieval German. The Germanicized Yiddish enables the audience to understand everything."

Maayan: "We managed to connect two sister languages that were always hiding from each other: Yiddish and German."

'Psychic tunnels'

All of Sobol's text is sung, making the work into an opera of sorts. "This is the first time I've written an opera libretto - a pigs' opera," Sobol says. The music was composed by Ida Kelarova, a Romani vocal artist living in the Czech Republic, who previously collaborated with Maayan on "The Family Table." Kelarova set to music the 16 songs Sobol wrote, and the result is a mixed Gypsy and Jewish score that "creates an emotional layer of infinite power," as Maayan puts it. "The music is the soul of the play, and provides a joyous destination for the journey of suffering that the audience undergoes in 'Purimspil.'"

Maayan originally planned to mount the play in a conventional space at a local theater, but negotiations between it and the festival management broke down. The search for an alternative space proved fortuitous: "I was sent to see a large and ancient wine cellar located near a hill on the outskirts of the city. I was thrilled by the power of the place, not just because it is impressive in its own right, but because it reminded me so much of the Knights' Halls in Acre. My eyes roamed about and encountered a door that led somewhere. I asked the owner about it; he mumbled something and opened it. I went through into a large, dark hallway. Along the walls were big wine barrels. The silence and the smell were powerful.

"The more I walked inside, the more a sense of recognition seeped in: My shoes are stepping on sandy ground. The sand is also soft and inviting, and so very familiar. All I have to do is close my eyes and imagine, and then open them and see the Mediterranean that I love and miss so much. Except that my feet were not trudging through the beach sand of my childhood, but rather through the soft, pleasant sand of tunnels that go on forever, dug by slave laborers from the Mauthausen camp. I'll never forget the shock that took hold of me during that long, endless march ...

"Some 30 kilometers of tunnels run underneath Linz. We are using merely a few dozen. There could not have been a more appropriate place for 'Purimspil' - with wine cellars, tunnels leading into the past and also 'psychic' tunnels. Up there, above ground, life goes on as if nothing happened. The psychic tunnels beneath the earth's surface reinforced the recognition of the importance of 'Purimspil' as a corrective work. Just as Purim is a holiday of gmar tikkun [a spiritual state of 'final correction,' in kabbalistic terms].

"At the end the actors-pigs hang Haman, as in the Megillah, but in a departure from it, Haman has hordes of candies in his pockets and while he is hanging, the other figures run about and plunge their hands in to get as many candies as possible. Afterward they are swallowed up into a large glass cupboard, as though being swallowed up into a gas chamber, to the sounds of a klezmer violin.

"People leave the play stunned and moved," Sobol says. "One woman cried from beginning to end. It is extremely rattling. It is absolutely not a pleasant experience."

Who comes to the play?

Maayan: "People from Linz, from the surrounding area, from Vienna and from across Austria. Some take umbrage at our desire to remind them again of the city's past as if they don't know about it. All of the performances sold out, except for a handful of seats, after word got around from the first audience."

Maayan is the artistic director of the Academy of the Impossible in Linz, and is also involved in a local school-enrichment program. In Israel he founded the Acco Theater Center in 1984, served as artistic director of the city's 1995 festival for fringe theater and founded the Shlomi Center for Alternative Theater in 2000, serving as its artistic director. His dialogue with Austria has been ongoing since he staged "Arbeit macht frei."

State of transit

In the summer of 2004 he came to Vienna for a year and has been there ever since, working and living there with his Austrian wife Angelika, whom he met in the city, and their two children, 13-year-old Tamara and 6-year-old Theo. Maayan has described his relationship with Angelika as a "new life," following an earlier one that unraveled in 1993 after 15 years of marriage to actress Smadar Yaaron. Angelika serves as Maayan's dramaturge.

How's your new life going?

"I'm living the good life. I found my spouse, who chose together with me to raise a family and to bring two wonderful children into the world. Family life brings tremendous and boundless joy ... Throughout my life I've worked on bringing people closer, creating circles of people and artistic, social and friendly gatherings. I'm involved in this here as well. Without building a family of my own, it felt incomplete."

Migration is a perpetual part of Acre-born Maayan's mental state, he explains: "It's a type of existential condition that has been branded onto me inside ... It will take several generations to erase this profound branding, which began with the rupture when my parents left Morocco at a tender age to immigrate. Their families were utterly torn apart in that tsunami. I was born in Israel - my country, where my sun rises and sets, where my sea is, where my Hebrew language is and, of course, my family, acquaintences, and closest friends. Israel is the painful longing, but the national issue doesn't speak to me so much. In Vienna I meet so many people who are in transit, and I am also impressed by the people, the culture and the power of nature, much more than by the whole national thing or matters related to the country as a state ...

"The image of all the people in the world being like leaves on a single tree really speaks to me. Even in the transit zone you've got a whole life, a daily schedule and employment. I recommend that every Israeli get out of the bubble and go someplace else - somewhere where the situation isn't crazy and where everyone thinks he is king. In Israel it is possible at times to forget completely that we live in a world with other countries and peoples."

"The Family Table" was your personal story to a large extent. What is "Purimspil" for you?

"For me, metaphorically speaking, it is a torturous journey in search of happiness, poetic as this sounds. After all, suffering and survival are familiar keys on the Israeli and Jewish agenda. The same applies to theater, to the play itself."