Theater Review: 'Tel Aviv Winter' Presents Love in Eight Scenes

‘Tel Aviv Winter,’ a play that deals with relations between men and women, doesn’t coerce viewers into being amused. Instead, it allows them to float on the wings of imagination.

Large, air-pumped silver-gray cushions represent the love a woman returns to a man in 'Tel Aviv Winter.'
Sergey Demyanchuk

As a theatergoer, I’ve learned that a play doesn’t begin when the curtain goes up, and doesn’t end when the curtain comes down. The curtain in this context is metaphorical, because in the vast majority of plays today – including “Tel Aviv Winter,” the new production by the Jaffa-based Gesher Theater – there simply is no curtain. I mention this because I’ve learned that a large part of the impact a play has on me is related to the expectations I have of it before the metaphorical curtain opens.

Yes, my impression of a play derives in part from the prejudgments all viewers have, not least those who don’t acknowledge them. The fact that I have various prejudgments about creators of theater before their play actually begins, is really to their benefit. I insist on trying to adjust those prejudgments while watching the play, as opposed to seeing it through the prism of the said prejudgment.

In the case of “Tel Aviv Winter,” the previous paragraph is a bit theoretical. I had no prior opinion about most of the creators of the play, the playwright, the translator-adapter, and most of the actors because this was the first time I’d seen them and their work. The program, unusually for Gesher, was spartan in terms of information, giving only names. So I didn’t know what to expect.

That said, knowing that the play is directed by Michael Kramenko, who has designed the sets for the great majority of Gesher Theater productions, stirred any number of expectations in me. For the past quarter of a century, the Gesher Theater has enjoyed high esteem for its high-quality theater, thanks to the artistic vision of Yevgeny Arye, the artistic director; the character and quality of the acting by both immigrants from Russia and native-born Israelis; a different kind of repertoire and a marketing method that does not depend on subscription series.

In addition, Gesher productions almost invariably possess another distinction: Besides the play and the acting, what works in the productions is the stage. What happens on the stage is always visually striking, not only as a representation of reality, but as an aesthetic element that functions on its own terms with impressive imagination and skill. (I do not mean to disparage the work of other Israeli set designers, many of whom are forced to make compromises because of a budget that doesn’t do justice to their talent.) The totality of Kramenko’s distinctive contribution to Gesher’s theater world raised the bar of my expectations; this was an opportunity to see him as an independent creator of theater. On the other hand, I didn’t have a clue as to what his stage design was supposed to serve, as the play was a mystery to me.

The upshot was that I spent 90 minutes in the Gesher Theater watching with amused admiration a series of short, unconnected scenes, gags and jests surrounding the elusive subject of love and relations between men and women. Two men compete over which of them had a worse date the night before. A young man who feels no pain because of a genetic flaw starts to understand what pain is when he starts to understand what love is. A woman who wants to break up with a man returns all the love he gave her, and demands that he return the love she gave him. A policeman and a policewoman on a joint patrol discover that what connects them is not just their common mission. A married couple finds that something very essential is missing from their love. All told, eight scenes, most of them dialogues, are played out on the stage in a set colored in deep blue hues, cold and wintry, reflecting the loose frame story – everything takes place 10 years in the future, during a Tel Aviv winter.

Hence the play’s Hebrew title, “Tel Horef” (literally, “Tel Winter”), in contradistinction to Tel Aviv (“Tel Spring”). This allows Kramenko to flood the stage with water and sprinkle it with snowflakes. One of the dialogues is actually between a snowman and a snowwoman, who redefine the concepts of “close-distant” in relationships. The whole atmosphere recalls that created by the Russian clown Slava, with strange, absurd Chaplinesque creatures.

The play’s wintry coolness inspires it with theatrical enchantment, forming the background against which the semi-absurd vignettes about love and relations are given metaphorical realization. What is missing in the married couple’s love is one of the wife’s shoes. That causes her to walk with an odd gait, a kind of skipping that echoes the steps of the snow figures. (Eldad Privas, who designed the movements, also plays a homeless person with a delightful shopping cart, who opens and closes the play; he also plays a saw as a musical instrument.) The love that the woman returns to the man takes the form of large, air-pumped silver-gray cushions that fill the stage. Two lifeguards talk about their failed dates, wearing yellow vests and with yellow fins on their feet, because they are doing their lifeguarding on a frozen lake, and they warn a woman who is leading a penguin about thin ice. (The penguin mannequin and its operator create a magic moment in itself.)

People, colors and forms

Hovering above the stage are three light fixtures that create a type of choreography and become props when required. The lighting design by Nadav Barnea suffuses the stage with a bluish northern aura, which love in its different forms tries to warm up a little. And because it’s all done in short, unconnected scenes, the music affords the play something of a cabaret show framework.

On the Habama website, I read about the playwright, John Cariani, and about the original play, “Almost, Maine,” on which “Tel Horef” is loosely based, in a review by my colleague Zvi Goren. He also wrote about the revisions to the text made by the adapter and translator Shahar Segal and by the director and the actors. I’m glad I didn’t know all that before the play began. I let it take control of me and followed the onstage developments with bemused amusement. What I learned about the play after it was over added to my experience.

Suddenly something about the character of theater became clear to me. We’ve become used to treating seriously theater that holds a mirror up to the face of our generation (challenging it or upsetting it according to one ideal, careful not to offend the nation’s values according to a different ideal). We expect theater to address the classics and also to seek new modes of expression. We’ve also become used to receiving entertainment, generally in the form of musicals or rapid-fire, raucous farce, within the repertoire framework. Yet, this play shows the feasibility of theatrical entertainment that does not strain for the spectacular and the sweeping, but rather allows itself not to be relevant, instead amusing itself with forms and feelings, not trying to excite or provoke, just playing with emotions, people, colors and forms.

Ido Mosseri brings to the stage his charisma and his somewhat childish energy. Alongside him, a host of actors slip in and out of characters and costumes: Carmel Kandel, Dor Michaeli, Noa Har Zion and Eldad Privas, who play the speaking characters; and Yana Adamovsky, Yelena Rautoba and Pavel Davidovich as the visible stagehands, and of course the marvelous penguin mannequin.

Flagrantly untenable, “Tel Aviv Winter” is theatrical entertainment at its finest, existing solely in its own right and for its own sake. It doesn’t coerce amusement in the viewer, but allows him to float on the wings of imagination – which sloughs off responsibility – and afterward leave the theater with the forbearance to engage reality.

The next performances of “Tel Aviv Winter” at the Gesher Theater in Jaffa will take place on Dec. 13 and 15, 2016, and on Jan. 15-16, 2017.