Michael Caine of Petah Tikva: Up-and-coming Director Brings British Realism to Israeli Stage

Nick Payne’s 'If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet’ is the young director and playwright Orly Rabinyan’s latest project.

Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem
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Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem

Nobody stayed indifferent when in the light of day, at the doorway of the Sifriya Theater in Ramat Gan, two tall figures clothed in black and wearing bright helmets appeared, shutting out the light. People realized right away that both of them − with their uniforms, padded shoulders, gloves and sunglasses that gave them a grotesque appearance − were police officers on motorcycles.

A tense, curious crowd collected around them. One young woman whose dress dipped too far down her back for that hour of the day stamped her feet across from the door of the library, the bizarre-looking police officers with her. “The harasser is here,” she announced gaily, deriving obvious pleasure from the role she had taken on herself: the guide at a crime scene. “What, you’re a psychiatrist?” one of the police officers, still wearing his helmet, asked her mockingly. She shrugged her shoulders as if to say: Wait and see.

The crowd in the theater space, which is usually empty during the day, was also a surprise for Orly Rabinyan, a young director and playwright who stepped outside the hall where her four actors were in the midst of a dress rehearsal for a new play she was directing. Four days before the opening of Nick Payne’s play “If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet,” tension was in the air. But Rabinyan couldn’t take her eyes off the scene that was unfolding in front of her.

“It was like a Pirandello play,” she recalled later. “The organic way the drama happened in real life, the open theatricality.”

Luigi Pirandello, an Italian author and playwright and Nobel laureate who died in 1943, was one of Rabinyan’s favorite playwrights as far back as high school ‏(at the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts‏). He dealt with deviation from reality and stepping out of the known and the comfortable.

In 2011, Rabinyan directed “The Man with the Flower in His Mouth,” his short, surrealistic play, at the Tahel Theater. The play, which was produced at the Suzanne Dellal Center, tells about a man who becomes homeless one night after he forgets the keys to his apartment.

Rabinyan, 34, lives in Tel Aviv. For about a decade, she has been writing and directing independent productions. She spent some of that time in London, where she studied directing, and in New York. In each place, she stood out as promising. Gary Bilu, the former head of the Beit Zvi theater school, was impressed with her performance during her high-school matriculation examinations and invited her to study acting with him. Instead, she flew to New York, where she worked as an assistant director to a performance artist. Then she went to London to study directing.

When Rabinyan completed her studies, she contacted Julia Pascal, a British-Jewish independent director and playwright, and began working as her assistant director. As soon as she returned to Israel in 2005, she stood out at the Short Theater Festival at Tzavta. Michael Handelzalts, Haaretz’s theater critic, wrote that the short play “A Drop in the Sea,” which Rabinyan wrote and directed, was the gem of the entire festival.

Two years later, the play reading of “Aimee and Jaguar” by Erica Fischer, which Rabinyan directed, won honorable mention at the Tzav Kriya festival. In 2010 she produced an early version of “The Man with the Flower in His Mouth” at Lincoln Center’s Directors Lab in New York, to which she was invited together with directors from all over the world.

The broken language

The new play Rabinyan is directing for the Sifriya Theater is completely different from anything she has done until now. This is her first foray into more mainstream theater, and it’s quite a success. The play “If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet” is a new, fairly realistic British play that tells the story of a family in England. George ‏(Yuval Berger‏), the father, is obsessed with the effects of Hurricane Katrina in the United States and even writes a book on the subject.

But the ones who suffer because of his increasing preoccupation with it are his wife Fiona ‏(Nili Tserruya‏) and his daughter Anna ‏(Roni Merhavi‏), an overweight teenager. When Anna’s ne’er-do-well uncle ‏(Lior Gerty‏) crashes on the family sofa, he is the one − even with his drugs and beer and bad language − who notices the disconnect between George and Fiona and their emotional neglect of Anna. In his own odd way, he shows caring and feeling, and holds a mirror up to the family’s gaze. The performances of the actors, particularly Gerty and Merhavi, is convincing and touching.

“Maya [Peleg, the production’s scene designer whom Rabinyan sees as a partner in the production] was enthusiastic about the play and asked me to direct it three years ago,” Rabinyan recalls. “But I put it aside.”

Only on the second reading, which she says was much later, did she understand the deeper layers of the text and decide to direct it. Micah Levinson, the artistic director of the Sifriya Festival and the director of Beit Zvi, believed in the play and took it on.

“I understood the play more deeply only after I experienced loss,” Rabinyan says. “After my father died, it took me time to understand the break around which the action takes place.”

At first, she watched innumerable clips about Hurricane Katrina on YouTube. “The images in the play were taken from those pictures,” she says. “People who came back to a home that had fallen apart completely. Something completely normative that had turned into a pile of junk. The process of something breaking down into something else fascinated me. That’s what happens in natural disasters, with the anxiety and the underlying lack of clarity.”

The week the play was produced, news headlines blared with the tornado disaster in the U.S., giving the play a dimension of current events. “To see the U.S. decline into a third-world situation means that the world’s illusion of security has collapsed,” Rabinyan says. “For all practical purposes, it’s the image of the collapse of a safe space, even that of the best families. The moment you experience loss, it’s a hurricane.”

Surfing to Iran

Rabinyan grew up in Kfar Sava, one of four siblings. Her parents came to Israel from Iran in the 1960s and met here. When I realize that her eldest sister is the writer Dorit Rabinyan, I look for the connection between their chosen fields, even though one writes literary works and the other writes and directs for the theater. Rabinyan believes that her father has a great deal to do with it.

While Dorit found a great deal from past family history to write about, Orly did not follow in her footsteps. She does not speak or understand Farsi. Her curiosity about her ethnic origin surfaced in her late teens, when she toured abroad and met “super-cool and interesting artists from Iran.”

She would rather speak about that indirectly, using hints, as if it were not completely clear to her yet. “It happens to young Mizrahi people that they open their eyes at a certain stage to their own identity. But it’s an understanding that has nothing to do with the regular Mizrahi narrative, which boxes them into a tiny space.”

“Sometimes I behave with no identity. It’s a feeling I’m happy with. Or my identity is reshaped according to whom I meet or talk to. For example, with an Iranian theater artist I met on Facebook.”

But when all is said and done, identity, for her, is a universal thing. It has nothing to do with one’s origins, nationality or ethnicity. She chooses to be a citizen of the world. “The world today, because of virtual spaces, allows a kind of belonging that is less dependent on national definitions,” she says.

Still, she admits, she is very interested in “dealing with Iranian text.” That won’t be happening anytime soon. Her next project is connected with the Directors Lab in New York, which she attended about five years ago. Seventy directors from various theatrical traditions − classical, modern, avant-garde − came from all over the world, Rabinyan among them, invited to spend three weeks working at the Lincoln Center. “The theatrical engine was mostly collaboration,” she says.

Out of the Directors Lab came a new project called the World Wide Lab, a collaboration of 12 independent directors, including Rabinyan and representatives from India, Italy, Greece, Canada, the U.S. and Taiwan. “As I see it, we share a common theatrical language that goes beyond speech,” she says.

They work all year long via email and Skype, and during the summer they meet in New York to work together at a theater that hosts them. This summer, the group will work at the Irondale Center, a lovely, wonderfully neglected space inside a church in Brooklyn, as they have for the past two years. “Ultimately, our goal is to become a global theater group,” Rabinyan says.

During the first meeting of the World Wide Lab, Rabinyan worked with Julia Pascal on a play about Joan of Arc. “The play was not understandable on paper, very Brechtian,” she says. She describes joint-directing as “the embodiment of an oxymoron” because directors are seen as people who work solo, on their own.

“It fascinates me to direct actors in a language I don’t speak,” she says. “When you don’t speak the language, it’s liberating because it sharpens other senses such as vocal expression and body movement, and allows an open approach with actors and other playwrights.”

She’s also putting on a play via Skype. “We’re doing “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller. Esther, the director I work with in Toronto, filmed an actress playing Abigail in the play and directed her in a monologue. When we’re in New York, I’ll direct a different actress who will respond online to Abigail’s performance with improvisational work. It will be as if each character is reflected in the other.”

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