How an Israeli Director Is Making a Mess of Molière

In his direction of ‘The Bourgeois Gentleman’ for the Cameri theater, Udi Ben-Moshe stops at nothing in his quest for laughs, but his production is painfully unfunny and extremely insensitive.

Michael Handelzalts
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Avi Kushnir (far left) and Anat Waxman (center) in 'The Bourgeois Gentleman'.
Avi Kushnir (far left) and Anat Waxman (center) in 'The Bourgeois Gentleman'.Credit: Daniel Kaminsky
Michael Handelzalts

“The Bourgeois Gentleman” is the fifth Molière play that Udi Ben-Moshe has directed in his relatively young career. It began very promisingly and energetically with “Scapin’s Deceits” at the Khan Theater, continued with an interesting take on “The School for Wives” at the Cameri, began to devolve into self-serving laughs with “The Imaginary Invalid” at the Khan, and went into a steep slide down the slopes of good taste with “Tartuffe” at Beit Lessin. Now he appears to have hit rock bottom with “The Bourgeois Gentleman” at the Cameri.

In the program, he talks seriously about how Molière helps him deal with his own anxieties. Ben-Moshe says he sees the hero of the play, Monsieur Jourdain (not “Jordan,” as some of the cast pronounce it), as an ordinary and sensitive man who suffers from feelings of inferiority and tries to act like “high society.”

There is no trace of any of this in his lamentable production. It’s one thing to do Molière with period wigs and costumes, but you still have to decide if you’re directing a play about characters, or an evening of entertainment based on ethnic imitations.

Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain is a ridiculous and naive simpleton who doesn’t understand social conventions and makes a fool of himself. High society cruelly mocks him, and the result is meant to be simultaneously comic and painful.

Crude stereotypes

In Ben-Moshe’s play, Avi Kushnir’s Monsieur Jourdain is a pathetic idiot. Kushnir works hard to be funny, but he ends up not being amusing as a character. And the group around him is just as lame. Yes, there is a Mizrahi element to the play, because the rest of the characters “trick” the gullible fool who wants to be “a bourgeois gentleman” and appoint him the “Effendi Mamoushi.” But this doesn’t mean Monsieur Jourdain’s family have to be such crude stereotypes of Jews of Middle Eastern descent, with “spontaneous” bursts of Mizrahi music contrasted with the classical artificiality of the supposedly scheming “nobles.”

In this production, it’s as if Monsieur Jourdain poses as an Ashkenazi impostor in order to mix with the pompous and ludicrous snobs. Do the creators and producers of this production have any idea how these issues resonate in modern Israeli society? It seems like they just decided that anything goes for the sake of a laugh – and that’s very sad. And in very poor taste.

It’s nice that they used Nissim Aloni’s very loose translation. But even if style is not the main concern here and they just wish to make the audience laugh, the play still feels too forced in this regard. Everybody runs about shouting, straining way too hard to be funny. Even if this were a student production overflowing with youthful energy, I doubt it would have worked.

“What a shame, what an embarrassment” is a quote from the play. I don’t recall who says it to whom, but it perfectly captures what I felt as a viewer – and what I imagine was going through the minds of some of the cast members on stage.

I have seen all of them in many other, much better roles and performances. To their credit, they all appear to be giving their all and skillfully doing what they were told to do. Likewise, I will be doing my best to erase this play from my memory.

The next performances of “The Bourgeois Gentleman” will be staged at the Cameri Theater on July 23 at 20.30; July 24 at 12.00, 21.00; July 26–28 at 20.30.

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