In an Israeli Play, Difficult People and a Citrus Grove

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One test of original Hebrew playwriting – the writing that everyone insists must be nurtured – is not the number of new premieres and new playwrights every year. It's the number of revivals of Israeli plays written in days when the original play really was nurtured.

And in this respect Yosef Bar-Yosef’s plays pass the test. This isn't only because they are excellent as Israeli plays outside Israel’s borders, but because they take on new life in new productions, even if they fly a bit under the radar compared to revivals of Hanoch Levin’s and Joshua Sobol’s works.

This season two of them are on at the same time. One is “Difficult People,” which was originally produced in 1973 at the Haifa Theater and is now in its fourth production there. The other is “The Citrus Grove,” which was originally performed at Habima in 1985 and is now on in a new version at the Beit Lessin Theater in Tel Aviv.

One thing stands out in these works, and it's no wonder the collection of Bar-Yosef's plays is also called “Difficult People.” His protagonists are people who are difficult toward others and above all toward themselves. As in “Difficult People,” in “The Citrus Grove” the struggle is between the genetic family unit (brothers and sisters) and someone from the outside who threatens to undermine the relationship. The siblings' relationship is twisted, to say the least.

In “The Citrus Grove,” Bar-Yosef sets the play and his attitude toward the characters in a specific time and place. The play was written during the immigration wave from Russia (still the Soviet Union at the time), which changed this country's demography (as did the following wave in the 1990s).

Bar-Yosef is unique in that he doesn't write about ideas or “society” but about people, for the most part. Thus the difference between the Israelis – two brothers and a sister in a moshava rural community – and the Russian woman is not in their origins but in their attitudes toward life, toward the other and toward property.

For apart from the four characters there is another significant presence: the citrus grove, which is the property of Menashe Sirkman, an embittered widower. It's also the heart’s desire of his wicked bachelor brother and sister, who hopes to hand the grove over to her daughters when they grow up. In the meantime, she tries to control her brothers.

The way to depict evil

Unlike the Israelis who see the grove as property and are preoccupied with who deserves it and who will get it, the Russian woman sees the grove as a metaphor and symbol of beauty. Both because of her origins and despite them, the play begs to be seen as Bar-Yosef’s version of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard”: Human fates are decided on stage while in the background there's that romantic and beautiful place everyone needs. But there's a premonition that the grove, like the cherry orchard, will be destroyed because people are difficult toward one another.

The cherry orchard in Chekhov’s play exists only in the background until the sound of axes chopping it down in the final scene, when the servant Firs is locked in the house, forgotten. But Bar-Yosef’s grove and his characters are in the forefront the whole time.

The citrus grove, according Bar-Yosef’s stage directions, is located beside the house where the action takes place. When the large window is opened, its presence is supposed to burst onto the stage. When the curtains along an angled wall to the left (from the audience's perspective) are opened, spindly branches are seen at implausible angles, with oranges and crates scattered around. This doesn’t look like an image of a grove – the Hebrew word is a cognate of the word “paradise” – or like the reality of a grove, but like a failed attempt at a reference that isn’t a reference.

Here it's worth pausing over a comment by Bar-Yosef in the program. “In the depiction of evil it is possible to go too far and to exaggerate without limit, and it will always look to us human and reliable," he writes. "However, a person to whom we grant in writing goodness and beauty without limit will look naive and unreliable, not to say fake.”

To a certain extent, Bar-Yosef is planting here a defense brief even before the trial has begun (this is his image for a play, not mine). There's the character of the ballet teacher from Russia – intoxicatingly beautiful Aida– the ballet, the grove as the embodiment of nature and the Zionist dream, and her enthusiastic and unsuspicious attitude toward the other characters. All this really does look exaggerated and unreliable.

However – and here it seems Bar-Yosef touches on a basic point of human nature, and certainly a basic trait of his characters – we tend to assume that every human action has an intention and aim, and it's very hard for us to accept actions whose motives we can't decipher. Moreover, we tend to believe negative motives and suspect motives like goodness and kindheartedness. Essentially this is what drives the plot of this play.

Lots of limpness

In the end, the test of this play is the actors' ability to transform the written characters into flesh-and-blood entities on a given evening. In this respect, Avraham Selektar and Florence Bloch in the roles of the bachelor brother and the sister have created well-defined characters. Yona Elian plays Aida, the ballet teacher from Russia, and Bar-Yosef articulates well the challenge her character poses for the actress and the audience.

No one disputes Elian’s stage charisma. The question of creating the character of the Russian immigrant in syntax and pronunciation is no simple matter. Bar-Yosef accurately perceives some of the oddities in the syntax of Russian immigrants, but because this is ultimately a realist play there is the expectation of a Russian accent.Elian doesn't try to produce an accent; she adopts a tone in the upper register of her voice, leaving the ends of sentences hanging in the air. But all this, along with the likable naivete of her character, fails to add up to a believable entity.

This leaves to the spectator Yitzhak Hezkiya in the leading role as Menashe Sirkman, the owner of the citrus grove, the object of his siblings’ covetousness and Aida’s love. Hezkiya brings to this complex part that is ripe with contradictions something one might call “limp erectness.” He's an actor with excellent control of his voice and character, and he's very precise in his work, down to the smallest details.

So it sometimes seems as if his characters are always tense. In creating the character of Menashe, Hezkiya also brings to the stage a degree of limpness, which is most evident in the Krakowiak folk dance during which he's swept into Aida's arms. In this limpness there is something that tempts the spectator to like this character, even though he's as difficult a person as the other members of his family.

Ultimately, this is a story about people who are given the opportunity to soften. A degree of attention is needed to keep track of their distress, and the shaping of the play doesn't make this easy for them and the audience. But even difficult people need and deserve love.

A scene from "The Citrus Grove" at Tel Aviv's Beit Lessin Theater, March 2013.Credit: Daniel Kaminsky

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