From the Iron Curtain to His Final Curtain: A Tribute to Gesher Theater Founder Who Died Last Week

You have to be crazy, curious and courageous to found a theater in a foreign country. Yevgeny Arye, who passed away at 74, was all three

Nano Shabtai
Yevgeny Arye
Yevgeny AryeCredit: Daniel Tchetchik
Nano Shabtai

“Yevgeny Arye, the founder of Gesher Theater, passed away tonight,” said a message I received last Wednesday night. After the initial shock, great sorrow descended on me, even though I didn’t know him personally.

The Moscow-born Arye, who was 74, established the internationally acclaimed Russian-Hebrew theater in Jaffa in 1991 after making aliyah, along with a group of Russian actors.

When a major cultural figure dies, it apparently touches one’s heartstrings as deeply as did the works he gave the public. And most of the written works Arye brought to the theater (plays and adaptations), through which he breathed new life into the stage, were important, deeply moving and laden with wisdom – first as texts, and then in the way they were expressed through theatrical elements that he oversaw as the theater’s artistic director.

For those theater lovers who still exist in the Netflix era, writers, actors and viewers alike – and it always seems, especially in these strange times, that the theater and its lovers are a forgotten tribe on a desert island – know that there is not and never will be any substitute for theater and the unmediated life of the stage. For this reason, theater is not just a mirror of life, a hypothetical subject for debate, but “real life” – its passions and its dreams.

And even though endless amounts have been written about the issue of theater as a mirror, at moments like this, that seeming cliché returns to its roots. And there it’s not a cliché at all, but a living emotional truth.

The Gesher production "Village," directed by Arye.Credit: Daniel Kaminsky

And therefore, before I’ve even managed to start thinking like a critic obligated to eulogize an important artist, to assess his uniqueness and illuminate his life’s work, I thought about my sorrow, simply as someone who, like so many other people, saw and was amazed by Gesher’s productions some 20 years ago, as a young woman studying theater. These moments and scenes are etched in my heart.

For instance, I remember Natasha Manor as Olga in “Three Sisters” directed by Arye, naked for a moment with her back to the audience, pouring water on herself while sitting in a wooden tub. It was such a moving and visually beautiful moment, and one with a purpose.

In “Three Sisters,” Arye brought to the stage an Olga completely different from the one we knew or expected. In his production, she received an additional touch of deep spiritual beauty and hidden pain.

This is the kind of encounter that only rarely exists in the theater – between a director who shows us the beauty and meaning of the text and the actress he directs, between the actress and the character, and between other elements such as the sets, music and lighting.

I remember Amnon Wolf’s wonderful performance as Solyony in the same production, Efrat Ben Zur as Irina and Evgenia Dodina as Masha, all of them portrayed so accurately. As in “Three Sisters,” images of the other productions remain with me: “Village,” “Adam Resurrected,” “The Slave” and others. In Arye’s theater, all the meaningful elements came together until the climax − the encounter with the audience and, at the end, a process of theatrical internalization. Arye’s Gesher had an enormous influence on Israeli theater and not just on theater – he succeeded in permeating all Israeli culture as a byword for quality and a new, and often higher, artistic threshold.

A scene from the Gesher production, "King David Report."Credit: Sergey Demyanchuk

Realization of a dream

For a long time, Arye had wanted to immigrate to Israel and establish a theater. He was denied the ability to make aliyah for many years but, when he did, he succeeded in realizing his dream with the establishment of his very special undertaking, a bilingual and (perhaps) bicultural theater. Gesher was able to touch Israeliness with productions of Yehoshua Sobol’s “Village” and Yaakov Shabtai’s “Eating.” Arye also nurtured the Israeli translator and playwright Roee Chen for years, many of whose plays he translated and crafted for staging at the Gesher Theater. Apart from Chen, who acted as Arye’s right-hand man and perhaps his most important connection to Israeliness, other plays that were staged by Gesher tended to belong to the canons and to the previous generation. It seems Arye had no desire to cultivate young talent or look for new Israeli material.

My sense is that Arye’s attitude to Israeliness and to acclimatizing had a dual nature. For example, in his production of “The Cherry Orchard,” the Russian aristocrats are all played by his circle of Russian-immigrant actors while the younger people and the character of Lopakhin – the merchant who in the end buys the estate – were played by native-born Israelis. You leave with the impression that it was no coincidence that their “heirs,” characterized by greed and lacking in tradition, education and refinement, were played by Israelis. The contrast and its message was hard to ignore. In recent years, Arye wasn’t living in Israel and, even if I don’t know the circumstances behind that, one has to conclude that his impact as a man of the theater was as an influential creator and a role model, and less as a figure who sought to be enriched and inspired by local culture.

There’s nothing wrong with this because without question Arye and his theater had a special charm and quality to them. Arye brought to the stage theater that was not ashamed to be theater. He brought to the theater musicians, live music, on occasion “big” scenery and a certain form of acting, sometimes very “theatrical,” all presented with a very broad, joyous perhaps even Russian sense of festivity.

Loss of a father

A scene from the Gesher production, "The Slave."Credit: Yeshaya Feinberg

Something in Gesher’s productions was often bigger – not only with the original Russian stars Israel Demidov and Evgenia Dodina – but also with the Israeli actors whom he nurtured, first and foremost Efrat Ben Zur, an outstanding actress who really grew and developed under his direction. At the start of her career one could not have imagined the professional place she would reach today. There are many other Gesher actors who without a doubt were fortunate to have had such an outstanding teacher and trainer in all aspects of the theater – the intellectual, the psychological, the physical. They had the privilege of working with a director and creative force who cultivated the best in everything he touched, all for the sake of art – and, from what I have heard, with great warmth and humanity. My heart goes out to his family and his extended Gesher family for the loss of such a father.

The sadness that overcame me isn’t just about Arye himself, that late great director, but the idea that it’s as if together with him died Chekhov, Pushkin, Stanislavski and even my own Russian grandfather, who painted theatrical sets in his youth, and who began to speak Russian again at the end of his life. In my eyes, Russian, or Russianness, is something beautiful – a combination of seriousness with subtle humor, intelligence, talent and uncompromising quality in all areas; at once very strict and capable of a fearless, tremendous and wild emotion. Like the great cold expanses so beautifully portrayed in Chekhov’s “The Steppe.” To be a director and establish a theater in a completely foreign country, you have to be crazy in the good sense, the sense that art requires, to be curious and courageous, like a child galloping across the steppe. Yevgeny Arye was that.

A scene from the Gesher production, "Six Characters in Search of an Author."Credit: Gadi Dagon

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