A Kind of Happy End: A Theater Critic’s Memories of Orna Porat

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Orna Porat, right, with actor Yosef Milo, center and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion at the premiere of “Jeanne d’Arc,” 1952. Credit: Courtesy of Tzavta

It was the absolutely final performance by Orna Porat on the stage of the Cameri Theater. She was one of the leading personalities onstage and behind the scenes for many years, even if she was not one of the founders. Her coffin laid in state on the theater’s main stage last Friday; the theater was not entirely full, and the absence of the actors of the young and current generation of the Israeli theater was particularly noticeable. Those who loved her parted from her in a good and conciliatory, if sad, mood (she died at age of 91; hers was not a career that was nipped in the bud. Perhaps it was even a kind of happy end), and at the chime of noon “The Threepenny Opera” was performed on the same stage.

This is neither a eulogy nor an appreciation. Everything that should have been said — who she was, her personal story (she was a German convert to Judaism who married a senior Mossad figure and shared his life), her work (her many roles, the Orna Porat Theater for Children and Youth) — has been said. Sic transit gloria mundi, with the inevitable end of the life of a great actor from the first generation of the Israeli theater.

What I seek to do here is to put into writing a few flashes of my memory starring Orna Porat, from a professional theatergoer and journalist who has covered this world, and lived on its margins, for almost 50 years. Not her great roles — the most important of which I didn’t see — but rather “what Orna Porat was to me.”

She stars in my first awareness as a theatergoer in 1961: Friedrich Schiller’s “Mary Stuart” at the Cameri, translated by Dan Miron and directed by Gershon Plotkin. It was after Hanna Maron, who played Queen Elizabeth in the premiere, became pregnant. Porat, who in the premiere portrayed Mary Queen of Scots, replaced Maron as Elizabeth, while Batya Lancet (the last of the Cameri’s remaining female founders) of the Cameri, who is still with us) took on the role of Mary.

One of my earliest memories of her is of course her voice, with its unique tone and characteristic diction. Perhaps this is the place to note that the actors of that generation, some of whom were not native Hebrew-speakers, had great respect for and command of the language, far more than today’s Israeli-born actors who take it for granted.

Porat in Eitan Green’s 1985 movie “Ad Sof Halaylah.”Credit: Dita Amial

Porat’s voice is etched in my ears thanks to a radio program about Bertold Brecht in the early 1970s on Army Radio, which was edited by Micah Lewensohn. It’s the last line of “The Good Woman of Szechuan,” one of Porat’s greatest roles, which I did not see. I’m not even sure that I recall the words correctly. But Porat’s voice whispers in my brain every time the situation is complex and desperate (which is usually the case in Israel): “There must be happy endings, must, must, must!” It’s not a shout. It’s a statement that accepts no other option.

Stern-faced prankster

In 1973 I was a Tel Aviv University theater graduate, a beginning theater writer, producer and critic on Army Radio. My connections were, very naturally, with theater people, some of whom I had studied with. That is how I found myself, also thanks to the beginning of my friendship with Gary Bilu, at rehearsals for Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler,” the first production of a group that called itself Bama 73. Bilu, who was the administrative director of Porat’s children’s theater, was the producer. The director was Edna Shavit, who died about two months ago.

“Hedda” was one of Hanna Maron’s great roles in the Cameri in 1966, and the “frenemies” relationship between Maron and Porat was part of the atmosphere of the Cameri and of Israeli theater in general. In my separate conversations with each, both women claimed the rivalry was a myth created by the media. I am sure that there was something to this. In any case, it seemed as though this independent production was supposed to be Orna’s “Hedda,” and to resonate with Hanna’s “Hedda.”

The rehearsals I saw were magical. The performances began, and then came the Yom-Kippur War, and the world and the theater went in different directions. Last Friday afternoon at the Cameri, after we said good-bye to Porat, the lighting designer Yehiel Orgal told me that in the break during the dress rehearsal for “Hedda,” Shavit gathered the actors together, harangued them for not doing what they had rehearsed, the way that she wanted, and the production collapsed. All that remained was the poster, which for years hung in Bilu’s home.

In her words of farewell to her friend, Dina Berniker spoke about a less-well-known side of Porat, who always looked very proper, event stern: She said that Porat could be a bit of a clown, who was always up for a prank. In the mid-1970s, as the producer or presenter of the interview program “Halayla” on Army Radio, we had Porat and the actress-writer Ada Ben-Nahum as guests in the studio. Because no army vehicle was available to take them home at midnight, I drove them in my car, and all the way to Porat’s home in Ramat Hen she scolded me and Army Radio for not even offering her coffee.

She managed to cause me — a junior soldier-producer-theater critic — to wake up the commander of Army Radio, Mordechai Naor, with a 1 A.M. phone call to report the complaint to him in real-time. While I spoke to him, Porat made faces and told me what to say, in a loud stage whisper. She and Ben-Nahum really enjoyed themselves.

Energy to lift a plane

In 2004 I happened to be on the jury of a Jewish film festival in Warsaw. One of the films was about Porat. It shows her in a cemetery in Cologne, at the fresh grave of a friend from her days as an acting student. Porat speaks of their close friendship, their vacations together, about loyalty and friendship, and then takes a deep breath and remarks: “She wasn’t a good actress.” My fellow jurors could not understand why it was important to Porat to say that, of all things, and now, of all times. But that was precisely the Orna Porat I knew. In her eyes, the fact that her friend was not a good actress was simply a fact, and you don’t ignore facts, you mention them and that’s that.

The last time I saw her was in 2012, when Tel Aviv’s Tzavta celebrated her 88th birthday. It was not until just now, rereading what I wrote at the time, that I recalled how special and moving the occasion was. There are two moments from that piece that I want to cite here, in memory of Porat: The actor “Rami Baruch told how he had sat next to Porat on a plane once when they traveled abroad with a production. When he saw the smile spreading across Porat’s face as the plane sped along the runway for takeoff, he understood the energy that is capable of lifting a plane into the air.”

And something that happened toward the end of the program: “And here something unlikely happened: Orna Porat herself came onstage and sat beside her daughter and her granddaughter. She told how she had taught them an old German chorale with words in Latin, ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’ (‘Give Us Peace’) and the three of them sang it with their three special, distinct voices. This was a magical moment, which could not have been planned or directed. And Orna Porat raised her hand with a pointing finger to remind us of the message in the chorale.”

On the Mako website is a link to a television news story made for Israel Channel 2 in 2011 by journalist Ruti Shiloni, in which Porat and her daughter Lital talk about death. The edited story was not broadcast at the time, at the family’s request. It’s important to see it. In memory of a great actor and a unique woman, but also in order to think about those important subjects that the theater deals with. Not the unblemished image of the country or the Israel Defense Forces, but life and death.

The funeral service for Orna Porat at Tel Aviv's Cameri Theater, August 7, 2015.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

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