1980s Play About AIDS Arrives, Reborn, in Tel Aviv

Director: 'The years pass and you're having one-night stands and there’s the Tel Aviv abundance and we're dulled.'

Anger is the most significant tool that motivated AIDS activist Larry Kramer. The man who led one of the most publicized of revolutions – the one that followed the AIDS outbreak in the 1980s in the United States – was the hero of the time. But he attained that status only after being pushed out of the association he established because of his unwillingness to compromise regarding closeted gay people and the conservative establishment, which ignored the deadly virus that had broken out and killed thousands of people.

Through Kramer’s work, which was revealed in the autobiographical play he wrote, “The Normal Heart,” received international attention when Ryan Murphy, director of “Glee” and “American Horror Story,” adapted the play as a made-for-TV film on HBO. Murphy’s screenplay won an Emmy Award, but “The Normal Heart” had been an acclaimed production long before that. First produced off-Broadway in 1985, it was highly successful, and in 2011 it was revived. That was when the young director Lior Soroka, who is bringing the play to the Israeli stage, saw it for the first time.

Soroka, 31, an alumnus of the Nissan Nativ Acting Studio and Tel Aviv University’s theater department and an editor at Haaretz, dedicated his debut work to the theatrical struggle of Ned Weeks, the play’s protagonist, who is based on Kramer, and his efforts to find love in a world where nobody is willing to accept himself for who he really is. In the play, issues of coming out of the closet become tangled up with questions of self-hatred and self-acceptance. The production is being staged at the Gan Meir LGBT Center in Tel Aviv.

Soroka was well aware that while the play is about the AIDS outbreak, on a deeper level it is about accepting the other and oneself, which gives the play a deep emotional dimension. “AIDS in the play is only a trigger that forces the characters to fight for their truth,” he says. “It was written in 1980 and suddenly it has been reborn because it talks about social struggles and how far they have to be taken.”

Sharp AIDS increase

During the play, Ned tells his friends in the organization: “More sex isn’t more liberating. And having so much sex makes finding love impossible.” In this way, he points an accusing finger at the gay community even as he levels sharp criticism at the establishment. At a time when the LGBT community is suffering a dramatic increase in the rate of the spread of AIDS (according to an expert estimate, roughly 10 percent of Tel Aviv’s gay community is infected), the question about the current link between AIDS and the community arises as well.

Soroka says, “One-third of those (500 people) infected with AIDS every year are gay, and that’s a large and very disturbing number. It seems to me that after you live in sexual oppression, there is a period in which you say, ‘Nobody’s going to tell me ‘no’ anymore.’ We started with sexual oppression, and we reached absolute sexual liberation, and I’m really not judging anyone, but it’s worthwhile to ask what led to the current situation. What’s true is that there’s a substantial difference between the lives of carriers in the 1980s and today, because today nobody dies of it anymore. But what’s left is its closet and its shame. I assume that every gay person asks himself every so often whether he would go out with someone who was a carrier. Personally that’s something I’d think twice about, but in general I’m not sure I’d rule it out.”

Some of the criticism that isolated Kramer during his struggle stemmed from the link he made between the sexual culture in the gay community and the price they paid. To what extent does this link exist today?

“This debate is very relevant,” he says. “I felt it about myself as well. I had several years during which my senses were dulled to love. The years pass by, and you’re having one-night stands and there’s the Tel Aviv abundance and we’re dulled. Tel Aviv invites a great deal of freedom on the one hand, but on the other, there’s a price to pay for that freedom. There’s some isolation.”

You directed the play in minimalist fashion. To what extent did you use Brecht’s alienation effect in your work?

“Brecht had whole theories about alienation, but the moment Mother Courage starts to mourn her children, the audience mourns with her. I also expose the mechanisms; the actors move the scenery and so on. I wanted it to be exposed theater, but I wasn’t trying to break the theatrical conventions.”

The cast you chose was half gay and half straight. Was that a conscious decision?

“It wasn’t planned. But I did tell them, ‘Please don’t play gay for me.’ It’s with them in the situation. Mannerisms aren’t necessary, and there’s no need to paint it with some stereotype. It wasn’t easy for the straight actors, particularly the part about kissing another guy. Udi Persi, the leading actor, took time reaching that point, and finally he gathered up his courage and did it. The gay members of the cast also had stuff to deal with because it’s more exposure as part of the role.”

Before sitting in the director’s chair, Soroka acted in several films, including “Snails in the Rain” by Yariv Mozer. Soon he will play his first leading role in Dan Wolman’s new film, ironically entitled “The Director’s Anxiety,” about a director who fears that his project is destined for oblivion. Asked to what extent his directorial debut arouses such fears in himself, Soroka says he is currently in the denial stage. The play he is directing also deals with that reaction, but fear (of AIDS and of exposure to it) is another significant part of the play.

“There is a death wish here in the community, and the community has to ask itself what is happening to us,” Soroka says. “There’s this issue here of living on the edge. As a gay person, you’re not committed to anything most of the time. In the play, the characters never knew what was infecting them. Today everybody knows what and how it happens, and they’re still infecting one another. This is something that ought to turn on some warning lights for us, and if the play does that, we’ve already gained something. I don’t see myself as an activist, but it’s the least I’d be glad to see happen.”

How much do you stand behind the play’s political message and its implicit criticism of the community?

“I don’t think there’s a clear message there because in the end even Ned, who is supposedly a leader of the movement, pays a heavy price for his protest by being thrown out of the organization he himself founded. During the run, this made me think about Daphni Leef and Stav Shaffir: One put on a suit and the other stayed in the field. In the play, too, there are all kinds of ways to run a struggle and I’m not sure that there’s one right way.

“There are also lots of aspects to coming out of the closet or being in the closet; it’s not black and white,” Soroka continues. “Ned says in the play that it’s already 1982, and he asks in amazement: When are you going to come out already? But to this day there are public figures whom we could ask what’s happening with them. Unfortunately, it’s an issue that hasn’t gone out of date.”

Ziv Sade