Paul Auster's 'Mr. Vertigo' Takes Flight on a Tel Aviv Stage

A novel about the essence of life is transformed into a spectacle that is a feast for the eyes.

Hillel Cappon leaps in a scene from 'Mr. Vertigo.'
Irad Rubinstein

The most noteworthy thing about the Gesher Theater play “Mr. Vertigo,” directed by Irad Rubinstein, is that it is, above all, theater. This is not semantics, but a matter of principle. What takes place on the stage is neither reality nor its “imitation.” It is an artificial representation – wrought before our eyes by means of actors, props, lighting and music – that conveys an idea or relates a human story. In this case, the play opens with circus artists bowing at the conclusion of their performance. The star – a winged youth played by Hillel Cappon, who is striking both in body and spirit – sheds his performance attire. Starting now, the director is telling the audience, we will create before your eyes a representation of reality, and we will also show you how we do it. You will be impressed, thrilled, moved, and at the same time you will see how we pulled the wool over your eyes.

The play is based on the Paul Auster novel of the same name. Indeed, it’s not surprising to find theater directors turning to novels rather than plays: Plays force a form and a stage reality on them, whereas novels allow them to fly. This is a useful image here, because the novel is about a youth, Walt, whom a character named Master Yehudi sees as a candidate for an ideal incarnation: equilibrium between body (flawed) and spirit (innocent) that will allow him to levitate. He is played in a businesslike, dry manner by Gilad Kletter, who nevertheless also seethes with powerful emotions and repressed violence.

Allegory of life

Auster tells a complex story filled with colorful characters, which is also an allegory of life: the human spirit can soar in its innocence, but is always in danger of being “contaminated” by desire (sex). When that happens, the spirit still hovers, but is exposed to the dangers of vertigo – dizziness and loss of orientation. These entail headaches and vomiting (apparently the gist of the human experience, according to Auster: transcendence at the price of suffering) and violence, entailing the killing of the body and, accordingly, a crash. All this also has a religious-ethnic parallel (Master Yehudi, the colored Aesop), but I find that less interesting (including the Yiddish in the text).

The play, which in the adaptation of the director and Yoav Shoten-Goshen forgoes the last part of the novel, is beguiling in its storyline and its ensemble cast. It also excels in visual imagination that is both simple and spectacular. Thus, Hillel Cappon, prone on the stage floor, lying on a wide skateboard, extends snow-white wings – and the audience sees him fly in a huge mirror that hangs tilted above the stage space. A stagehand turns a pair of seats by means of a pole to the sounds of music (by Roy Yarkoni), and one character turns a steering rod and the audience sees a car about to crash.

The stage is empty most of the time, and filled with the imagination of the set designer Michael Karmenko. Everything is done by means of blatantly visible props and devices (barbed-wire balls, which are also stars; sheets drying on a clothesline that become Ku Klux Klan robes, turning a moment of celebration into a brutal, albeit bloodless, lynching). The lighting, by Avi Yona Bueno (Bambi), generates wonders on the stage, as usual; and Michael Weisbrod’s sound design shows that this is an art, not just a matter of amplification.

The plays directed by Rubinstein that I have seen (including the currently playing Be’er Sheva Theater production of “Romeo and Juliet”) display a superb understanding of the stage space and of the aesthetics of theater as an art (in contrast to the imitation or even illusion of reality), abundant momentum and imagination, and also a note of violence, which adds an earthly, human brusqueness that is very much missing in many plays that revel, and justly so, in their aesthetics.

One’s heart breaks at the end of the play, when the master (the artist?) admits his failure and is mourned by the winged creature of his fabrication who will never fly again. But the theater magic remains whole.