Child's Play Is Anything but Simple

The success of Ido Ricklin's stage adaptations for children derives from his belief that you shouldn't be telling kids what to think, just how to.

Ido Ricklin doesn't believe you need to "roll out a sequin-studded carpet to make children want to see a play." He's a well-known figure in the Israeli theater world who, among other things, adapts classical literary works for the stage. "Instead of imposing on children the tyranny of a 'Wow!' show or the culture of a 'Kokhav Nolad' [the Israeli version of 'American Idol'] and cheap thrills, we should think about what these kids are taking home with them when they leave the theater," he says.

Ricklin, 46, cannot understand why so many people considered him audacious when, seven years ago, he translated and adapted for the first time "Momo," which is based on Michael Ende's fantasy novel of that name. This year the play has returned to the stage at the Holon Mediatheque. "The first version we created, in Yoram Loewenstein's acting studio, was longer and more complicated, with a 17-member cast," recalls Ricklin.

"The new version has been brought to the stage in response to a request from the Mediatheque's artistic director, Roni Pinkovitz, who remembered the original version. It has been created with a tight budget and a cast of 10. Although we made budget cuts and downsized the script, there is still the feeling that what we have has a lot of nostalgic appeal. It wasn't our intention to produce a show with a captivating look. Children still love this kind of thing, even today; the adults are the ones who are challenged by the new version of the play."

First published in Germany in 1973, Ende's novel tells the story of Momo, a young girl who is locked in a battle with time thieves. "The novel deals with several topics," notes Ricklin. "My adaptation shifts the focus in the direction of the superficial versus the profound. This is a direction that is high on my agenda."

Is time a topic that children can connect with?

"When I was a child I was fascinated by the subject of time: What is a day? What is meant by 'in two days' time'? Sometimes a day or two can stretch out for eternity, and sometimes a day or two can pass very quickly. The realization that I would one day be an adult. My understanding that my mother would grow older. Unlike children previously, children today are not exposed to elements like aging or death. We live in a sterile environment and that is why these elements are so intriguing.

"One of my guidelines to actors is 'Don't philosophize too much about time.' For Momo, and for children in general, these are existential, not philosophical, questions. Something is pursuing her and she wants to know why. In effect, these questions are relevant today as well. A young girl today who lives with a regimen of extracurricular classes and who has to be driven to them and taken home from them is actually in the same situation as Momo is. This modern-day girl is also being pursued."

A graduate of the Central School of Speech & Drama at the University of London, Ricklin has served as director in residence of the Be'er Sheva Theater and Habima. He also serves as a teacher and director at the Beit Zvi School of the Performing Arts, in Tel Aviv.

In 2010 he received two awards at the Israel Theater Prize ceremony, for both his adaptation and his direction of Alexandre Dumas' "The Count of Monte Cristo" (for Be'er Sheva Theater). He also wrote the scripts for "Obsessiya" ("Obsession"), based on Jules Verne's "Around the World in Eighty Days," and "Fantasia" ("Fantasy"), based on "The Arabian Nights."

Ricklin's translation and adaptation of "Momo" constituted his first work that was aimed exclusively at children. It was followed by adaptations of another German author's literary creations: Erich Kastner's "Emil and the Detectives" and "Lisa and Lottie" (which has served as the basis of several stage and screen adaptations, including "The Parent Trap"), which are two of the more prominent productions that he has adapted in recent years for the Mediatheque theater. He is currently adapting Kastner's novel "The Flying Classroom."

"Initially intended for adults, classical literary works for children underwent a process of rehabilitation," Ricklin says. "Erich Kastner is the most daring author I know. He presents some very painful images in his books. In 'The Flying Classroom,' there is blatant violence against children. Although, in my opinion, that work is profound and marvelous, you still have to know precisely how to show that violence. Kastner does not make life easy for the children who read his books."

In your adaptations, to what extent do you allow yourself to intervene in the original literary creation?

"First of all, I never change the plot. However, I am also not interested in merely copying it. If I just copied literary creations, I could not be called a playwright. I search for the story's core, and that is what I put on the stage. Although, in 'Lisa and Lottie,' I could not make peace with the Kastnerian ending and couldn't sell the idea to children that the parents ultimately restore their marital relationship. Today, the alternative family is a wonderful solution, and that is what I could promise without any hesitation, and with considerable optimism.

"Similarly, in 'The Flying Classroom,' there is violence and there is a child who is administered a 'courage test,' which was an accepted practice in that era. I adapted the plot because I don't live in that kind of society. On the other hand, the children's society that is depicted is still violent, and this fact cannot be overlooked. Kastner presents painful subjects such as divorce, the indifference of adults, violence. I relate Kastner to today's society using the tools of today's world."

Ricklin feels a special connection with his adaptation of "Momo," saying the "profound questions and issues in the book are very high" on his agenda. "Ende presents the problem of modern society's constant pursuit of success and excellence - a pursuit in which people along the way forget about life's simple pleasures. In my opinion, the entire Western message of 'live the dream' is a pure lie, because most people don't have a dream; they only want to be rich and successful.

"We [Ricklin and his life partner, MK Nitzan Horowitz, of Meretz] were recently in Norway and we traveled along four-lane highways at the low speed of 60 kilometers per hour. Initially, we were mystified as to why people over there drive so slowly. However, we soon realized that this is what they really need. Norway's landscapes are so breathtaking that it makes sense to drive at that speed. Here in Israel we build 10-lane highways - yes, we are really progressive - and if you don't move forward, you are dead. That is the capitalist edict.

"Although Momo also aspires to excellence, she does so within her own parameters. She goes to war against the whole world, which is trying to dictate to her how to act. There is the beautiful concept of the 'good-enough mother' [a term coined by British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott]. I think there is also the concept of the 'good-enough person.' This is superb, in my opinion. You can't be perfect in every parameter; you are sitting on the tip of the pyramid for a few years and then you just fall off.

"Momo talks about excellence and children understand her. A few years ago, my nephew was given a present - an elegant, magnificent bike - and he broke down in tears, crying: 'But I wanted a small bike!' He wanted something that would be suited to his needs."

In the new production of "Momo," which is aimed at children aged 9 and up, the actors are students from Sela, Yoram Loewenstein's Performing Arts Studio. "The actors," observes Ricklin, "have a huge impact on the writing of the script. While I don't ask them to make any suggestions, I do say to them, 'Tell me where you find the text is really speaking to you.' For instance, in response to what certain members of the cast said, I transformed the male hairdresser in the play to a female one, because that change fitted in beautifully. I also drastically changed the role of Cassiopeia, the wise and patient turtle, and added several replicas for the actress who plays the turtle, Maya Madjar."

The leading role, that of Momo, was molded in the image of actress Chen Barel. Sadly, Barel only appeared in three performances of the play before plunging to her death after falling from the roof of Loewenstein's Tel Aviv home during a party this past May. "It is important to mention Chen, who had such an immense impact on the play," Ricklin says. "Her death was a great tragedy. In the auditions for the role of Momo, I already realized that she was Momo. In the video clip uploaded to YouTube that shows scenes from the play, you can see her in that role. Aviva Nagosa, who replaced her, has a totally different look and her portrayal of Momo, which is marvelous, is also very different."

In "Momo," as in his adaptations of Kastner's works, Ricklin is collaborating with director Rafi Niv. "In my opinion, Rafi is terrific," says Ricklin. "We have worked together for many years and the dialogue between us is very pleasant. When you write by yourself, there are many things that you simply don't explain. When I work with Rafi, I don't have to write how this or that scene should be performed. I am confident he will know what to do. And that is a great relief. I also have great faith in his artistic taste, and I can sometimes tell him that what he has done is not to my taste but is still marvelous."

Nonetheless, doesn't the director in you want to interfere?

"When Rafi wants my input I make certain directorial suggestions, but I want him to be totally in charge. I send Rafi every scene I write. I share with him, I develop with him. Sometimes, he will initially maintain a silence and then, only after a while, he will tell me, 'Right, this is what I want.' I wrote a chase scene in 'Emil and the Detectives.' Two days later Rafi said to me: 'I tried to find a solution for this scene, but the solution does not suit my directorial language.' So I told him that he was free to replace the scene with something else. Another scene, which was simply beautiful, was created. In general, I write with a child's viewpoint in mind; however, Rafi is much better as a director of children's theater. He has a level of ability that I just don't have."

His deep admiration for the complexity of "Momo" leads Ricklin to express certain doubts about children's theater. "If the plays that strike me as naive and exquisite are perceived as creations that do not precisely belong to the genre," he explains, "that doesn't say very much for the genre. I know that I'm not the only one who thinks this way. For instance, the Mediatheque has introduced a change [in the presentation of children's theater]; however, there has to be a much more powerful tailwind. Elitism is not a dirty word. You don't have to be afraid to create something that is high quality, even if the theater is half-empty. And, in the final analysis, the kids love it. I cannot accept the idea that the state backs only those who succeed and not those who dare to try."

The vast majority of plays being presented today seem to be more concerned with didactic issues than artistic ones.

"You don't have to tell children what to think; you have to tell them how to think. Kastner taught me more than many of my teachers when he told me that I have to use my brain. It is so popular today to teach children how to think within a given framework, to pigeonhole. For example, in Israel's version of the 'MasterChef' reality show, a Sephardic chef is put in a straitjacket, so to speak, and is told, 'Let your feelings guide you when you make the meatballs.' Let your feelings guide you - in other words, switch your mind off. Instead of leaving everything within confining boxes, we must bring children plays that talk openly about dilemmas and that force them to ask questions.

"Even when I work with actors at Beit Zvi, I believe that it is crucial that they develop their own opinions and their own powers of judgment, and that they do not surrender to the directive, 'Work on my feelings.' I tell them: 'Entertaining your audience is great, but it is not art. You must distinguish between the two.' I am sometimes asked what a play's message is, and I respond: 'There is no unequivocal message. There is no bottom line.' Because that's not what art is supposed to give you."