Stage Animal / Levin, Lodz and 'The Labor of Life'

Intimate, reverent and some pleasantly surprising performances of Hanoch Levin dominated the Jewish offering at Poland's Four Cultures festival.

Since 2002 Lodz, an industrial city in western Poland, has been holding a festival called Four Cultures, which packs into a few days in September events from all areas of the arts, including interdisciplinary arts, representing the four major cultures of the inhabitants that make up the city: Polish, German, Russian and Jewish. This year the festival added a subtitle, "Master Artists."

The Polish hosts were represented by poet Czeslaw Milosz, whose centenary was marked this year. A book of a selection of columns Milosz wrote during the last years of his life in the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza was published recently, and the newspaper's editor Adam Michnik was hosted at an evening in Milosz's memory.

Hanoch Levin’s 'Murder' - Janusz Szymanski - 20092011
Janusz Szymanski

Russian and Soviet culture (and who if not the Russians and the Poles knows how to distinguish between them? ) was represented by evenings of heartrending singing by thrilling baritones. A German master of the performing and physical arts is slated to appear next week.

In the nature of things, and in the nature of my origins, of course my main interest was in the Jewish representation. At a local museum, an exhibition was held of works by Polish-Jewish illustrator and cartoonist Arthur Szyk. In Israel he is known mainly for the Passover Haggadot he illustrated. The Poles also remember him, for his anti-Nazi political cartoons in the days before World War II. But Szyk aside, most of the Jewish representation at the festival was purely Israeli art.

At the center of the festival's theatrical events - and in fact the entirety of its theatrical offering - were plays by Hanoch Levin. In a way that was not entirely surprising: In the light of the Polish tone and sounds of the characters' names in his early works, the Poles are very interested in Levin's plays. "Krum," directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski, is considered a big success in Poland and a hit at international festivals. It has even visited Israel.

Cult of death

The first play of Levin's I had the pleasure of seeing at the festival was "Murder," performed by the Lodz Teatr Nowy, directed by Norbert Rakowski. This play, which Omri Nitzan directed at Tel Aviv's Cameri Theater in 1998, is political and firmly planted in the Israeli-Palestinian situation. It begins with soldiers killing a Palestinian youth and preparing to mutilate his body; it continues with the appearance of the boy's father at the scene; word that fighting has ended and peace has begun; the wedding of a young Israeli couple, whom the Palestinian father murders, convinced he is avenging the death of his son; an explosive charge that goes off in an Israeli neighborhood; and a lynching by prostitutes of an Arab worker who happens by.

In the Israeli reality of 15 years ago, at the start of the twilight of the Oslo Accords, the story of the cycle of murder that is stronger than politics had a clear meaning. Strangely enough, Polish theater is particularly interested in this play. The production in Lodz is the third version in Poland. Of course, the Israeliness of "Murder" is attenuated in Poland: The soldiers in the first act looked to me like men from the Polish secret service of the sort who repressed the Solidarity trade union in its early days, the days of the end of the communist regime; the youth who is killed is actually a young boy. The whole excellent troupe is on the stage the whole time, with the three actresses and six actors changing characters and costumes in front of the audience; and children, with angelic voices, bring the alternating news of war and peace again and again.

Since the premiere in February, the Teatr Nowy has performed the play less than 10 times. This is the repertory system customary in Poland. It was clear that the director and actors treat Levin's text with respect and admiration, as befits a masterpiece by a poet whose every word is important, while attempting to find a universal message in the cult of death in the play. The perspective of the direction, detached from Israeliness, was very interesting to me, and especially the moment of silence at the end of the play when the lights dim. It seemed to be the silence of an audience still under the influence of the experience and hesitating to break the magic of the theater with the noise of applause. But perhaps I was imagining things and they simply didn't realize the play was over.

The next day I saw Levin's "The Rubber Merchants" in a production by the Imka Theater, directed by Artur Tyszkiewicz. The plot follows pharmacist Bela Barlow as she dithers about whether to choose Yochanan Tzingerbei, who comes to her to buy condoms and has savings of 60,000 liras (but cannot afford an apartment ), or Shmuel Sproul, who possesses a legacy from his father - a stock of 10,000 condoms he is willing to sell to Tzingerbei at a discount. This play was produced in Israel three times, and I had thought it would be impossible for me to be surprised by a performance of it. And yet, the director and actors prepared two surprises for me. One was casting actress Aleksandra Popplawska in the role of Bela. In this performance, Bela becomes the embodiment of erotic femininity, who easily manipulates the two men - Lukasz Simlat as Tzingerbei and Janusz Chabior as Sproul, both of them excellent, each in his own way - but who nevertheless fails to get out of the dead end of her inability to compromise. The second surprise was in the musical adaptation by Jacek Grudzien. The three actors, with microphones attached to their faces that allowed for intimate acting in a relatively large space (a performance area that is also a film studio ), were also rock singers for the occasion, accompanying themselves on electric guitar and keyboard. The Polish audience enjoyed the performance and was enthusiastic about the play, and rightly so.

The premiere of which the festival boasted, which was supposed to have contributed to a trio of Levin plays at the Stefan Jaracz, the largest and most representative of the theaters in Lodz (a city of about 1 million inhabitants, where there is also an opera house and musical theater ), turned out to be an embarrassing misunderstanding. The play, "Waterfalls," was publicized as being based on Levin's "The Labor of Life." In publications prior to the production and in the program, it was stated that director Agnieszka Olsten, a promising young star of Polish theater, had included in the production improvisations by the actors on the topic of the play.

Those familiar with contemporary German theater know there is a school that believes the director is the star of the production, while the text of the play is just a starting point with which it is possible to do anything - shorten it, add to it, edit it, change it beyond recognition. But even in the wildest stretches of my imagination I never thought it would be possible to claim that this was a production based on a specific Levin play when throughout the entire evening, for about an hour and a half, they used only about 10 lines from the play.

The stage looked like a kind of nightclub where actors ran, danced, quarreled and sang. True, most of the time the talk onstage was about a couple who had been married for a long time and couldn't stand each other, and true, the actors addressed one another by the names of Levin's characters, and Levin's play "The Labor of Life" does deal with the aforementioned topic. But apart from that, this was another production of the "why not?" school. When the question comes up of "Why did you produce it like that?" the answer is usually "Why not?" No, I didn't ask the director. Though we conversed before the performance, after it I fled before I could be asked my opinion.

Etgar Keret stars

The festival's organizers also arranged a discussion of Levin's work and Polish theater's interest in him. The academic side of the discussion was represented by Prof. Anna Kuligowska-Korzeniewska, an expert on Yiddish theater in Poland, who admitted that despite the glories in Levin's work, she finds it difficult to understand what is enjoyable about it.

Dr. Zahava Caspi of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev presented at the discussion the Polish version of her book on Levin's work, "Those who Sit in the Dark: The Dramatic World of Hanoch Levin," which is based on her doctoral thesis and was published several years ago. (I am unable to name any monograph on a Polish playwright that has been published in Hebrew. )

A thick volume of eight of Levin's plays translated into Polish has also been published. Two of the translators - the spokesman of the Israeli Embassy in Poland, Michael Sobelman, who was the first to translate Levin into Polish and who translated "Murder," and Agnieszka Olek, who has studied Hebrew and has translated inter alia "The Rubber Merchants" and "The Labor of Life," adding a biography and an article about Levin and his works - talked about the challenges of translating Levin into Polish.

Danny Tracz, a friend of Levin's, the producer of some of his plays and an editor of his collected works, brought to the discussion stories from backstage, rare video footage (of Levin dancing as he demonstrates to actors during rehearsals for "Those Who Walk in the Dark" ) and details about Levin's trip to Poland to where his parents were born.

Another guest of the festival was actress Lilian Baretto, Levin's widow. For her too this was a roots trip: In Lodz she visited the house where her grandmother was born. Like everyone familiar with Levin's works, Baretto too was surprised, and not for the good, by the non-performance of "The Labor of Life" and I assume that discussions will soon be held about discontinuing the rights to perform the play granted to the Polish theater.

If Levin starred in the festival with his works, Etgar Keret starred in it both with his works (he is a very popular author in Poland ) and in person. To my regret, I did not manage to make it to his meeting with the Polish audience, which was moderated and translated by Michael Sobelman. The meeting was held at the home base of the festival, a cafe-bar popular among Lodz artists called The Closet. The next day, I saw a report on the event in Gazeta Wyborcza - "Etgar Keret: In my youth I wanted to be a drunken whore."

In the body of the report, alongside other fascinating things Keret said about writing and about Israel, was the following detail. Keret related that in his childhood his parents would make up stories for him. The stories told by his father, who had been an emissary of the Irgun Revisionist pre-state underground in Italy after World War II, were often set in a whorehouse. Keret related that he asked his father, "What is a whore?" and the answer he got was, "It's a woman who knows how to listen to men." And when he asked what it means to be "drunken," he was told that drunken people are happy. Etgar Keret the boy concluded, "I want to be a drunken whore."

It happened that I flew back to Israel on the same plane as Keret. I asked him whether he had already told that story in Israel. He said he hadn't. So now I have a "scoop" from the Four Cultures festival in Lodz, Poland.