A Star of Israeli Theater Still Reigning Supreme

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

In the past, I’ve written here − more than once − about Itay Tiran, and his unique abilities as an actor and director who creates good theater from worthy material. But here I’m pleased to be able to write about the work of a man who took his first steps on the Israeli stage 40 years ago; has performed around 65 main roles from a wide repertoire, and still stands center stage.

The actor I am writing about is Doron Tavory, who pays King Berenger in Eugene Ionesco’s play “Exit the King,” translated by Dori Parnes and directed by Rina Yerushalmi at the Itim Theater Ensemble.

Ionesco’s play, which was written in 1962, is about a king who has been on the throne for 400 years and is forced to confront the fact that he is going to die. Death is not an abstract concept − it is something tangible that happens in the present − which lasts around an hour and a half ‏(the length of the play‏), and is inevitable. The fact that the king is alive does not change this in the least. On the contrary, it only emphasizes the fact that death is an inseparable part of life.

Ionesco was from Romania, though he wrote in French ‏(the name of the play in French is “La Roi se Meurt”‏). In the play, Berenger’s first wife Marguerite tells him that death is the other, inseparable side of the coin that is life. Man lives and dies in parallel, and the play makes it clear to both the king and the viewers that humanity requires us to accept this truth while we are still alive, as death is inevitable and beyond our control − and by the time it comes it’ll be too late to recognize it. An interesting sidelight is that the English version of the play ‏(translated by Donald Watson‏) didn’t use as a title “The King is Dying” or “The King Dies.” Instead, “Exit the King” stuck − and is the name of the version that was staged on Broadway in 2009. There is a reason for this: During the play, Queen Marguerite tells the king that his life is a play that he must perform in, and he should also know how and when to exit the stage.

Both sides of a coin

It’s no coincidence that I mentioned Doron Tavory alongside Itay Tiran, and I should stress that this is my opinion of their work, from the perspective of someone who has been involved with, and a professional observer of, Israeli theater for around 40 years. Each actor deserves a great deal of respect separately, although to me their acting achievements are like two sides of a coin. Tavory studied acting in London and started his professional career as an actor at the young Be’er Sheva Theater, when it was managed by Gary Bilu. It was there that he played many roles, including Romeo, alongside Rebecca Neumann’s Juliet, and Viola in an all-male version of “Twelfth Night” directed by Hanan Snir − an unforgettable experience for anyone who was there.

During the 1980s Tavory worked in the Haifa Theater alongside CEO Noam Semel and artistic director Omri Nitzan. Within a few years he had played key parts in plays by Yehoshua Sobol: Otto Weiniger in “Nefesh Yehudi” and Kittel, the Nazi officer in “Ghetto,” a role that Tiran recently played, as well as two roles in “Jerusalem Syndrome.” He also acted in some groundbreaking plays, such as Martin Sherman’s “Bent” and the Israeli-Arab production of “Waiting for Godot,” directed by Ilan Ronen.

Since then, Tavory can be found in all sorts of unconventional productions in Israeli theater. These tend to be broadly political, and challenging. One of the unique things about Tavory is that he isn’t part of a company; he is an independent actor who chooses his roles, and also initiates some of the productions, translating material and co-producing. He brought Bernard Henri Koltes’ plays to Israel; participated in the productions by Kristian Lupa, Robert Woodruff and Gadi Roll at the Be’er Sheva Theater; played the title role in Steven Berkoff’s “Hamlet” at the Haifa Theater ‏(Tiran played the role at the Cameri a few years ago‏); initiated the production of Sternheim’s four plays at Habima; put on a one-man production of “Oresteia”; took on ambitious musical projects in several languages with Dori Parnes ‏(who also works with Tiran‏); collaborated in several productions with Ofira Henig at the Khan Theater and the Herzliya Ensemble; played Gustav Mahler in the international production “Alma” by Austrian director Paulus Manker and Yehoshua Sobol; and ran the Haifa Theater for a short time. He does not hide his political opinions ‏(for example, on the issue of performing in Ariel‏) and has also acted in several “commercial” productions in Beit Lessin such as “Equus” or the musical “Blood Brothers.”

In my opinion, Tavory − who has had the most impressive professional journey in Israeli theater − started out on the right road when he collaborated with Bilu at the Haifa Theater. Since then he has justified every ounce of faith in his talents and personality. He was the first big acting talent that Bilu believed in − and Tiran was the last talent that Bilu adopted and nurtured towards the end of his career and life as manager of the Beit Zvi acting school. Both actors are endowed with their own type of talent, looks, intelligence, curiosity, engagement, and in some miraculous way their paths keep crossing. For example, the translation of “Richard II” was commissioned from Shimon Sandbank by Omri Nitzan with the intention that Tavory play the role at Habima. Eventually the part was played by Tiran at the Hasifriya Theater, and is now showing at the Cameri. In Richard II, Tiran plays a king who loses power and meets his maker − just like Tavory’s King Berenger in Ionesco’s play.

A painful experience

And so far I haven’t even written a word about Tavory’s acting. It has an interesting quality − his willingness to ignore what nature has given him in terms of appearance. Over the years I’ve seen him willing to completely sacrifice the peacock posturing that many actors adopt, and to give himself completely to the role. For example, he tends to choose to walk in a slightly hesitant way, and sometimes it seems as if he deliberately chooses to distort the appearance of his body. His technical ability allows him to sketch an impressive outline of the character, and to give a precise, meticulous performance that still allows the humanity to shine through. He always gives the impression that he is serving something greater than himself; the play and the performance.

Therefore, there is something liberating and enjoyable about Tavory’s work in “Exit the King.” For an hour and a half, we get to see him display a variety of human experiences: We are shown a pampered child who is convinced that he rules the world and his subjects, and who then discovers that neither they, nor his body, listen to him anymore. We see him smile with self-confidence and lack of belief in the possibility of death, and a moment later we see him collapse to the ground and struggle to stand upright again. This is a painful, important human experience.

The play is a journey in which Queen Marguerite ‏(regally performed by Razia Israeli‏) confronts her child-king-husband with the facts of life. At the end of the play, when she leads him to his death with understanding and acceptance, a bright silence fills the room and he is ready for the crown of death to be placed on his head − and the audience gets to witness a truly majestic moment of theater. Such moments are what make life worth living.

I’ve seen Tavory onstage in nearly all of his roles. I’ve shamefully failed him as a spectator at least once, and definitely failed as a reviewer on many occasions. But the truth is that he left the biggest impression upon me when I interviewed him in front of an audience. I asked him when was the first time he knew he wanted to be an actor. He told me that it was at nursery school ‏(and I quote from memory‏): “The kindergarten teacher told us to be ducks. We started walking around like ducks, and I suddenly realized that soon there would only be one duck ...”

Since then, half a century − and more than 60 principal roles − has passed. If the king is going to die, then it’s pretty clear to me that there’s still a long road ahead.

Tavory in “Exit the King”: Over the years, he completely sacrificed the peacock posturing so many actors adopt.Credit: Gadi Dagon
Tavory in “Krapp’s Last Tape."Credit: Gadi Dagon