Once upon a time, when I was a young and enthusiastic theater critic, I used to collar my young children and drag them with me to productions for kids. On one occasion, I remember, to my belated shame, I even sat them down in front of an Army Radio microphone and asked them, in a live broadcast, what they thought about the play we’d seen. Because at that time I considered it my obligation to write about everything that moved on the stage, I made no effort to check out whether the play I was taking my children to see was suitable for them, or fit for human consumption in general.
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Since then I’ve grown older though no wiser, but as a grandfather I now go to great lengths to check whether a play for children to which I’m taking an available grandson or granddaughter will cause them, heaven forbid, psychological or aesthetic damage. From my experience as a critic, parent and grandparent, I can say that I am in full agreement with a colleague who warned parents against taking their children to productions that promote themselves with adjectives such as “colorful” and “possessing high production values.” They mostly maximize noise (“Louder, kids, I can’t hear you!”) and believe in ear-popping music (prerecorded, drum- and bass-heavy), lighting effects and glitz.
It’s with all of the above in mind, but not least, also because of the production’s inherent qualities, that I happily accompanied my four-year-old granddaughter, her mother and her grandmother to “The Adventures of Humit,” a play about an ant based on a children’s book by the iconic Israeli writer S. Yizhar (the centenary of whose birth is currently being celebrated). It’s a joint work by Ruth Kanner and some members of her theater group: Tali Kark, Adi Meirovich, Ronen Babluki and Shirley Gal-Segev. In fact, “Humit” doesn’t even bill itself as a play or a show, but as “an hour of joint creation.” And, true to its word, it affords children a participatory experience, but as individuals and not an exulting herd. In contrast to our world, which sanctifies “more” (noisy, colorful, fast), this production is marked by “less” (quiet, harmony, slow).
Yizhar’s tale is about a father and son who encounter a sack of wheat that has fallen off a truck and find themselves following one industrious ant from a huge swarm as it tries to carry one grain, larger than itself, to the common reservoir. Originally published in 1958, the book is written in Yizhar’s masterful, simple Hebrew, without any attempt to condescend to a child’s level of understanding. The author seems absolutely certain that when the father tells the child (who wants to rescue the ant that is straining under the burden) to “let it fend for itself and allow it to act according to its ways and according to its strength,” even the children of the “like” generation – “I went to this play and it was, like, really great” – will get the point.
“Humit” is much more than a play. The children (ages 4-7) first gather around a bench that serves as a table, and with felt pens and fingers (tissues for cleaning hands are provided) paint a series of ants, antennae and all. They then divide into groups and are taught by Ronen Babluki, whose childlike enthusiasm is combined with the smarts of a quite responsible adult. They learn how to signify ant-like bodily behavior: hands act as front and middle legs, feet complete the six possessed by an ant; index fingers, bent and placed against the forehead, are the antennae. Another group, under the guidance of the actresses in the ensemble, having made their way as disciplined ants to another space, learn how to break up words into syllables and voice them in chorus – but in a fun-filled whisper, not shouts.
Charm and inspiration
The preparatory workshop for the children and their escorts is a delicate matter: how to help the kids participate without being pushy about it or doing things for them. Then the story itself begins, led by Tali Kark. The text is spoken, declaimed, told in intersecting voices (to which we are accustomed in the work of Kanner and her group). The charm of the words and sounds is fully underscored without losing anything of the Yizharian Hebrew. Adi Meirovich plays Humit, who never stops to rest and is undaunted by any obstacle in her mission to bring the grain of wheat to the nest. The children, who are asked to play the crowd of ants around Humit, get two stories for the price of one – the story of the ant and the story of the father and son who are watching it – and also get a handle on big-small perspective.
It’s all suffused with charm and inspiration mediated by a simplicity that respects the work, the children and the adults. But the end of this magical hour (design: Kineret Kish; venue: a hall of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art) raises it one more level, thanks to Yizhar’s story itself. Following the conclusion of the plot, with its toil, activity, constant movement and tenacity of mission, the end of the story is a moment of meditation. After the ant rushes on its way, the brief interlude between its disappearance and the darkness becomes a different time – “a great and open and full time in which there is room for all kinds of things and still more.” That quality – of suspending the relentless runaround the world we live in forces on us – is filled with meaning at the hands of Ruth Kanner’s actors.
The children might not yet grasp the full thrust of the philosophical note that Yizhar extracts from that special interlude – “we need perhaps only ask that this little interval, the hour of the ants, will wait with us and not go by so fast” – but I’m pretty sure they could sense its singular quality with their antennae.
The next performance of “The Adventures of Humit” is on December 31 at 11 A.M., Tel Aviv Museum of Art; tickets at (03) 607-7020 or www.tamuseum.org.il/en/event-item/65457