Among the plethora of new children’s plays, two stand out for their originality. One production is by a veteran, high-quality theater for young people; the other is a debut by an acclaimed repertory theater for adults, which at long last is seeking to attract a younger audience as well.
“The Lead Role,” a production of the Orna Porat Theater for Children and Youth, based on a story by Rivka Magen, is a coming-of-age tale about children in a drama class who stage a play at the end of the school year. In addition to the intrinsic interest generated by the play-within-a-play structure, the format enables viewers to become acquainted in the most riveting way with all aspects of the theater world, both good and not so good. According to the theater’s website (in Hebrew), the play is intended for children aged eight to twelve.
The plot revolves around the relations between two youngsters, Ora and Liron, both of whom want to play the lead in a production of Dickens’ “Oliver Twist.” The story, in which the role is usurped with the use of threats in an effort to hide personal and family secrets, sensitively reveals a genuine desire to be seen and heard – in a word, to stand out. “If someone has a dream, no one is allowed to destroy it, he has to be helped to fulfill it, that’s what you have to do,” Ora says. In this case, the dream is fulfilled only after everyone’s secrets become known, and the truth – about life, which isn’t so rosy, even for children – comes to light.
The director, Gil Chernowitz, who is also responsible for the stage adaptation, plays up the frame story of children in a drama class, but also gives prominent place to “Oliver Twist” itself, which is staged as a musical. The music is by the composer and arranger Ben Zeadman. The injustices of Dickens’ story, as depicted in the dramatized segments, blend well with the schoolchildren’s troubles, and theater and life become increasingly interchangeable.
Along with the lead roles, played by Timor Cohen and Aviv Kushnir, Ori Laizerouvich is memorable in a sharply etched, humorous part as the narrator who eventually becomes a theater teacher. The dramatic sets by Frida Shoham furnish the final touch in a fine play about love of theater and the fulfillment of dreams.
Father and son
Another powerful experience – this one aimed at children from the age of five and the whole family – is provided by Gesher Theater’s production of “The Adventures of Odysseus.”
In recent years, repertory theaters for adults have mounted productions for the very young. Though this would seem to be only natural, in practice it happens only when circumstances permit or there is a potential economic gain. The Cameri Theater’s marvelous production of “Ootz Li Gootz Li” (Rumpelstiltskin) has been playing for years in a series of revivals, but is more like a fig leaf for theater in the realm of children’s culture. Beit Lessin Theater does better work in this field, offering special series of children’s plays. The Gesher Theater production represents something of a quantum leap, providing a more mature and refined theatrical experience.
The playwright Roee Chen, Gesher Theater’s dramaturge, has written a play for our time, based on Homer’s epic “The Odyssey.” Under his hand, the story is transformed into a life journey with which every viewer can identify.
Here too there is a story within a story. Tal is waiting for his father to return from a 10-day trip. In the meantime, he is reading the book his father left him, about the travels of Odysseus. In the course of reading, the real world fuses with the mythological world: The boy’s father becomes Odysseus, king of Ithaca; his mother is Penelope, who waits years for her husband’s return and also plays various mythological characters. As for Tal, who repeatedly asks his mother when dad will be back, he starts out as an observer and narrator, but becomes part of the story as Telemachus, the only child of Odysseus and Penelope.
Chen’s writing is rife with humor and humanity. Thus, the father is an archaeologist – “in short, a digger” – and the mother is an ornithologist – “in short, aflutter.” And the two don’t quarrel all the time, of course, but only argue.
Before each performance, Chen converses briefly with the children in the audience about the magic of theater. His original adaptation is tightly directed by the promising young Shir Goldberg, who emphasizes the intertwining of imagination and reality.
This dynamic play is further enhanced by a cast that moves with great virtuosity from scene to scene. Noam Frank, who plays Tal, steals the show not only because of his young age but because his performance is charming and displays great talent. Gilad Kelter is a standout as a vital, daring Odysseus, and the threesome who accompany him – played by Yuval Banai, Adi Alterman and Ori Yaniv – provide the lighter dimension of the difficult journey.
Also deserving of mention are the original solutions created by the set designer, Alexander Lisyansky, such as the boy’s bed, which rises into the air and morphs into a ship, and Daniel Solomon’s music, which heralds plot complications. The play’s conclusion, with its homecoming catharsis, evokes a human journey of anticipation. The experience of the children in the audience at the play I attended was further enhanced by the opportunity they were given to meet the actors after the performance.
Next performances: “The Adventures of Odysseus,” July 12 at Gesher Theater, Jaffa; “The Lead Role,” November 15 at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art