Israeli Theater Company's 'Mephisto' Invites Unwelcome Parallels to a Darker Period

Once upon a time in Nazi Germany, there was a brilliant actor who found himself collaborating with a nationalist dictatorship. Any resemblance to our present-day reality is purely coincidental.

Dudu Niv and Itay Tiran star in 'Mephisto.' Collaborating with tyrants.
Gerard Allon

These are not halcyon days for Israeli theater: It is being targeted by the minister of culture. She is holding the whip of budget cuts over the heads of creative artists, and actors will be better off if they are of the correct ethnic origin and loyal to their funders. So it’s good, as an antidote, to go to the theater and escape into realms of imagination and illusion.

“Mephisto,” Hillel Mittelpunkt’s play based on the 1936 novel of the same name by Klaus Mann, tells a tale that is not of the here-and-now. There is simply no point in looking for parallels to what is happening in our precincts, because it is impossible – not because it’s wrong – to compare. Once, around 80 years ago, a party assumed power in Germany in a democratic election. Its sole concern was with the purity of German society and loyalty to national values. As it happens, at the time there were opportunistic theater people – well, there was one, but he was extraordinarily talented and charismatic. To advance his career, he agreed to serve that government, telling himself that in serving the devil he was actually preserving the truly important values, such as culture, for the future. And anyway, what’s the big deal? He did make an effort to help his friends, but to no avail, because he was just an actor.

This is not the first time Israeli theater has turned to this roman à clef about theater-state relations. This adaptation was staged by the Be’er Sheva Theater about 30 years ago. Mittelpunkt and the director of the Cameri Theater production, Omri Nitzan, tell the story of an actor who, brimming with ideals and wishing to serve his art (and also his ego, a little), finds himself collaborating with and yielding to tyrants. But he persuades himself that it’s the right thing to do, like Katherine, the shrew, who at the end of Shakespeare’s play speaks in favor of giving in to her husband and his control. The Cameri production tells the story cautiously (perhaps a bit over-cautiously), lest, heaven forbid, we might be tempted to think that there is some sort of connection between the plot that unfolds on the stage and our own unfolding life in Israel.

Not ‘just theater’

The spectators of this very purposeful play are placed in the position of being behind the scenes of a play being performed for an imaginary audience situated – as it were – on the other side of the upstage area. Mirrors, makeup rooms, the curtain and costume racks (with Nazi sleeve bands in impressive numbers) are the props, though the stage is for the most part empty. The characters have little opportunity for reflection; they are swept up by the onrushing events.

Itay Tiran, in the lead role – of an opportunistic actor who is playing Hamlet (in a production I would not wish to see) and Mephisto (in a production I would very much like to see), has a part that is not, for a change, larger than life. Indeed, the actor he is playing is smaller than life, and Tiran doesn’t try in the least to make the audience like his character. Possibly his great achievement as an actor here is to de-glitter himself and shout in a booming voice, “I am just an actor!”

This allows his stage partners to glitter flamboyantly, sometimes grotesquely, in deliberately off-the-wall performances. Eli Gorenstein shines in four excellent roles, and Dudu Niv, as the General, utters with restrained venom a famous line – when he hears the word culture he reaches for his gun. Gil Weinberg, Simcha Barbiro and Avishai Meridor are the humane actors who are of course ground to dust amid this reality. Irit Kaplan, Ruth Asrsai and Helena Yaralova, who play the women in the life of the “just an actor,” are outstanding in their brief time onstage.

This is a story about how theater that wishes to distance itself from life and tell itself that it’s “just theater,” finds out that this won’t work. It’s also a story about a great actor who was a small human being. And it’s very important to see the play in order to grasp that there is no such thing as “just theater.” That’s what is truly dangerous. But not for us, of course. Because this story isn’t about us. It’s about them, there, long ago.