An Israeli Classic Lost in Translation - to the Stage

A new theatrical version of a cult Israeli movie - Ephraim Kishon's 'Blaumilch Canal' - fails to inspire and simply doesn't capture the magic of the original.

Lior Nordman

Ephraim Kishon’s 1969 film “Blaumilch Canal” is an Israeli cult favorite. It tells the story of a mistake begun by a madman with a jackhammer, which leads to a huge destruction-and-construction operation. At first no one wants anything to do with it, but soon everyone is vying to take credit, and finally, once the magnitude of the fiasco is understood – by which point there is no turning back – everyone tries to whitewash the whole thing. The lone honest man who cries out that the emperor has no clothes and it’s all a big mistake is branded an irresponsible madman and blamed for the whole mess.

Anyone who takes on a cult hit is setting a trap for himself from the start, jackhammer in hand. Eli Bizaui is an excellent translator, and Guri Alfi is a highly skilled and talented comic with a manic streak. They had worked together before, and set out to find a joint project. Alfi loved Kishon and the film, turned Bizaui on to it, and they came up with the idea of adapting it for the stage. But both men, as well as the managers of the Cameri, misjudged the magnitude and complexity of the task at hand. The film is a cult hit because of our affection for the way (we think) we were back in our age of innocence, the kernel of a funny story, a lot of terrific theater actors from the past, and a single brilliant idea (the human machine).

To bring this to the stage you need more than an idea that sounds exciting (but is just a joke), and the pull of a television comic whose name will sell tickets. You need a director with experience and the boldness to reinvent the cult hit on stage, to set it crazily awhirl with just the right touch, to use it to say something new, something beyond having a good-natured poke at ourselves while aspiring to create a tribute to our cultural past. And Bizaui and Alfi are just not sufficiently skilled and experienced as directors. If this had any chance of succeeding, artistically or with the audience – and I’m not at all sure this was even possible, for there was no real reason to turn this cult film-joke into theater – it had to be done brilliantly. And the attempt on display here is pretty shabby. I’m not saying it’s bad. It’s worse than that: It’s nothing special. And I’m one of those folks who think that theater has to be much more than nothing special.

So we have Kishon’s script with all the jokes – good and less so; schematic scenery; hints of chaos; failed stabs at style; a couple of comics (Alfi, Bizaui) doing what they do best; a bunch of good actors wasted on non-roles (Yitzhak Hizkiyah – Little Hizki – in the role played in the film by Avner Hizkiyahu – Big Hizki); Yoav Levi and Ezra Dagan. There is also a lovely moment of nostalgia (Aya Granit Shva in the role created by her mother, Zaharira Harifai); a charming young actress – Roni Goldfine – who in one of her roles in the play serves tea like an experienced waitress; music by Keren Peles that’s as subtle as a jackhammer (unconscious self-irony? – the film score was composed by Noam Sheriff); rudimentary, predictable and unconvincing set design; and much hope that all this will do the trick.

But it doesn’t come close. Instead, it suddenly seems that what happens in the plot is what happened to the play. Somebody had an idea, and the idea got out of control, and when they realized what a mess they got themselves into, they tried to fix it, to improve it, to add something here, delete something there – only to find what was done could not be undone. And so we’re left with heaps of rubble (all that wasted talent, skill, time, resources, audience goodwill) and something wholly unnecessary and not right that’s being sold as “theatrical entertainment” (which in itself, as a form of escapism, needn’t be all bad). But no one is asking, and no one will answer, the question asked in the script – “Who gave the order?” Or: Who bears the responsibility? And, in the end, the one who cries out that it’s all a big mistake is hustled off to the lunatic asylum. Which is where I must be headed.