Two Plays About Boyhood That Speak to Adults

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A scene from 'The Adventures of Odysseus'Credit: Gallery

Two plays about youthful odysseys are now showing in Israel, one about two teenage boys finding each other and the other about a young boy taking a fantasy journey with his father. Both productions are beautiful, well acted and worth seeing.

The Be'er Sheva Theater is showing “Beautiful Thing” by John Harvey, translated by Ido Ricklin and directed by Nir Erez.

The play takes place in a typical British neighborhood, where three dysfunctional families live crowded together. Steve lives with his father and violent brothers (whom we only hear about). Jamie, who cuts gym class, lives with his mother, Sandra, a bartender whose latest lover is Tony. Leah, who has dropped out of school, is a fan of Mama Cass and the Mamas and the Papas. The misery of daily life, together with the kindness and hardship of the people in the neighborhood, form the backdrop as the two teenage boys (first Jamie, then Steve) discover their homoerotic feelings and come out to themselves and those around them.

From a realistic perspective, the play makes its job easy by sugarcoating a situation that in too many cases, even today, is bitter. But one leaves the Be'er Sheva Theater feeling that the play's title is apt: It really is a beautiful thing.

The play and the production contain much lovely innocence, thanks in large part to two of the leading actors: Tom Avni as Jamie, who already knows that he is gay, and Tom Hagi as Steve, who discovers his sexuality during the play. The moment when they dance together to the song “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” sung enchantingly by Mama Cass, drew a sigh of pleasure from an audience member sitting near me, and I almost joined her. Two or three older couples walked out of the play in the middle, but the younger set in the theater made its enjoyment heard.

Neta Haker designed the scenery, which depicts the British slum well, if schematically, though the use of a bed at front of the stage did not seem ideal to me. Nir Erez guides his actors with wisdom.

Guy Loel plays Tony, Sandra’s latest lover, with gangling charm, and Adva Edni rules the stage with her temperament and comic sense. Although the role of Leah, the lost girl, is a bit disconnected from the rest of the plot, Meirav Shirom makes it a focus of its own with the force of her vivacious personality.

Just as important, especially in a play like this in which the text is not the main focus, is the contemporary translation by Ido Ricklin, which sounds so right in Hebrew. The soundtrack of the Mamas and the Papas does all the rest. A beautiful thing indeed.

The Gesher Theater in Tel Aviv is showing “The Adventures of Odysseus” by Roee Chen, based on "The Odyssey" by Homer and directed by Shir Goldberg. The play is everything children’s theater can and should be, which is a production that grown-ups especially enjoy, because it speaks to the child with them and the child within them. It is also admirable for the work, method and imagination it puts to use.

The playwright Roee Chen, who was funny, pleasant and insightful speaking to the audience before the show (and met with the children in the audience afterward) gave his play two layers. The first layer is the home of the little boy Tal; his father Udi the archaeologist (“He digs,” Tal tells the audience, which is Hebrew slang for "boring") who goes on a trip, and his mother, Shir, who loves birds. The second layer is the book that Udi leaves for Tal — Homer’s “Odyssey,” which Tal reads as he waits for his father to return. The mythological story of Odyseus-Udi's return journey to Ithaca takes place before his eyes and on stage in front of the audience, with Tal as both storyteller and participant.

The Gesher Theater may be the only major playhouse in Israel that can bring a stage to life. The set designer, Alexander Lisyansky, created a stage that fires the imagination without hiding its machinery. A bedroom is transformed into a ship sailing upon the waves (which are a long strip of fluttering blue cloth), and the ship becomes the cave of the Cyclops. The costume designer, Polina Adamova, helps turn Udi into Odysseus, his companions on the trip into pigs (when they stay on Circe’s island) and Shir into Penelope, Circe and a siren. There are sails, ropes and cyclops and bird masks that Goldberg, the director, makes good use of to create a complex, lovely and respectful version of a classic that speaks to children in a way that is simple and sophisticated at the same time.

That would not have been possible without an enthusiastic acting team: Odysseus' traveling companions, Ori Yaniv and Yuval Yanai; assistant director Daniel Styopin, who stood in for a sick actor at the last moment; Vitali Fuchs as the cyclops, the great-grandfather, a suitor for Penelope and a neighbor; Neta Spiegelman as Penelope, Circe, the siren and Shir, and Gilad Kletter as both Udi and Odysseus.

The whole production comes together beautifully thanks to the leading actor, Noam Frank, who plays Tal and Odysseus’ son, Telemachus. One does not often get the opportunity to see a child actor who is graced with charm, gifted with clear diction, shows understanding of the nuances of the text, has an excellent sense of timing and, above all, does it naturally, as though he has spent years on the stage.

This is a charming production in all its aspects, and the presence of a new star (let him not be spoiled!) is a bonus.

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