A Children’s Play Both Wild and True

Rinat Sterenberg’s 'Madam Kloom,’ showing at the puppet theater festival in Jerusalem, features delectable humor and the virtuoso use of recycled objects.

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From “Madam Kloom.”
From “Madam Kloom.”Credit: Dor Kedmi

“For me, doing plays for children means being on the side of the forces of good, those that influence through what it is wild and what is true.” With deftly worded simplicity, the puppet theater artist Rinat Sterenberg defines her creative path. Her new play, “Madam Kloom,” being staged as part of this week’s International Festival of Puppet Theater (see box below), illustrates her unique artistic path.

The play, an adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s “Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish,” is centered on a kindly homeless woman whose sole possessions are bundled in a cart and who tells the story of her transition from a life of plenty to life on the street. There is no heartrending plot here, but the opposite – clownish acting and mischievous use of objects and materials that in fact underscore the pleasure of finding simplicity in life.

“I very much wanted to show the beauty in simplicity,” says Sterenberg. Even those who at first glance seem so wretched to us can turn out to be people with something to teach us – happy people.”

Have you really seen happy homeless people?

“It’s more on a philosophical level. You can see people like that and understand that sometimes they have greater freedom than those who get into their car in the morning, drive off to work and come home late at night, having spent the day staring at computers and money. The question of wealth, what is wealth, where do you find it? Seeing that everyone can find his or her own path to being happy, not through society’s dictates.”

The path taken by Sterenberg, 37, is that of an individual engaged in a perpetual search. She grew up in Haifa and majored in theater at the Reut-Wizo High School for the Arts. She began her academic studies at a preparatory program of the Nissan Nativ Acting Studio, but very quickly moved over to the School of Visual Theatre in Jerusalem. “It is there that I found a suitable home, one that gives greater space to the arts, and primarily, one that merges them and does not divide them up.

“In my creative work, the entire design concept is woven into the whole matrix of the writing, the acting, the music; everything is interwoven. During and after my studies, I discovered and delved deeper into the realm of clowns, buffoons and court jesters, who always speak the truth. Inherent to that is the comic angle and the social perspective concealed within, as well as the world of design, which is almost always composed of materials and objects that are so familiar to us in our everyday lives.”

She began with plays for adults, but was soon drawn to the world of children’s theater. “There you have an audience. The audience is charming. You can do everything. And you can influence not by didactic means but through freedom and delight,” she says.

In her new play, Sterenberg spends much time on stage interacting – and acting – with plastic bags, that quintessential symbol of homelessness. By turn, she introduces the various characters in the plot – the fisherman, the fisherman’s wife, the fish itself, through her virtuoso use of recycled objects. Accompanied by touching humor, Sterenberg takes the children on a fascinating journey.

“Since I started doing this play, there hasn’t been a scrap of material or object I see on the street that doesn’t tempt me to put it in the play and do something with it. Every thing seems so alive to me. You can make an entire world out of every thing. This character of the homeless woman spurred me to look around the street, to peer at people who have nothing, and to think what story might be lurking behind each of them. ”

Where did the original idea come from? How did the joint creative process with the Train Theater begin?

“I’ve been into cardboard boxes and plastic bags for a while, and then this story came up, and I knew it would connect well to the material. Slowly but surely, I cleared away the cardboard boxes and left mainly the plastic bags and another few things. I got together with Alina Ashbel of the Train Theater, and we discovered that we are very much alike when it comes to the world of materials. She directed the play. We considered materials, examining plastic bags, looking at umbrellas; we found lots of things, but not everything eventually got into the play.”

Sterenberg sees puppet theater as a developing artistic genre. “The field increasingly incorporates the performer, then mixing in video and animation. It has become a well-regarded art, not at all some marginal sub-discipline. Some people still think it is marionette theater, or hand puppets, something that is very old-fashioned, but in fact there is an entire innovative world within this spectrum. In recent years, an increasingly larger audience has been exposed to it, and more artists are becoming part of it.”

The international festival led by the Train Theater for over two decades will include 12 premieres, five international plays and over 44 plays and 100 performances for children. For adults, there will also be four cabaret performances.

“At this festival,” says Sterenberg, “you can encounter many types of art, and it most certainly has an international air to it. And the fact that it is in Jerusalem gives it a unique sort of color.”