Stage Animal / The Theater Critic and the Actors' Naked Body

One tries to disregard the physical attributes of performers on stage, but sometimes it's difficult to avoid what's staring you in the face.

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

A theater critic's important contribution to the theater world is his willingness to go to the theater where the show is being held and sit through it while being as awake and attentive as possible. Then, shortly after it is over, he reports his impressions in print or verbally as concisely, clearly and factually as he can. I confess shamefacedly that in the last category, I recently fell short of the accepted standard, but every time I am invited to attend a performance officially, personally, by telephone message, email or Facebook, I try to go. That is my duty; that is my atonement.

But some invitations are more of a challenge than others. Here is a quote from a post last May that appeared on the Facebook page of actor Tomer Sharon. As you will see, everything happened in the digital, virtual space. I am not condensing any of the statements, and attribute them accurately to bring about the world's redemption (as per the dictum in Jewish tradition that one who repeats a statement in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world ): "A nice, incredibly horny woman began chatting with me. Because of the hour and the cast of characters, the subject of the conversation turned to sexual matters.

She outdid herself, sending me photographs of private parts of her body that were, incidentally, very beautiful. I gave back as good as I got, sending her a photograph in the same spirit that was saved on my cellphone from a similar relationship a year ago. Since I am not an expert in the cellphone-computer interface, even though I thought I had mastered Facebook's private-message feature, the photograph appeared, like a news flash, on my wall! I deleted it, but my lack of technological skill, combined with some mysterious Facebook bug ... caused the photo to appear there again about an hour later. In the end I deleted it as much as I could, but it seems that several friends could still see the photo of my erection, proudly standing. ... During this time I went from terror to amazement to cursing and then to an unprecedented attack of laughter. ... I hope everyone enjoyed it. The reviews were flattering, by the way. Handelzalts still hasn't written it up, and I'm waiting."

When I'm told that other critics (who shall remain nameless ) have already given positive reviews and that the actor is waiting for my critique, I can't help but try to meet the challenge. I'll say right away that I'm refraining from commenting on the photograph Sharon describes. I didn't see the photo (no, Tomer, don't PM it to me). But even if I had seen it, my talents in appreciating photography - examining the cropping of the frame, the angle of the lighting and the composition - are a bit amateur. As for the subject of the photograph, I don't see myself as an expert in appreciating the aesthetics or level of attractiveness of those parts of the human anatomy, male or female, that are usually kept covered. I guess that I have certain preferences and tastes, but not the sort that I can, or wish to, justify or give grounds for verbally or in writing, privately or in public.

Actresses and aesthetics

These are things you're aware of, and sometimes it's hard for you to ignore them: Actors and actresses are tall or short, but they may also be fat or skinny. And this is where the problem starts: We're tolerant of men on stage (and offstage as well ) when they are fat, ugly or don't take care of their appearance. But a woman on the stage, no matter what her age, is expected to be slender, well-dressed and obedient to aesthetic criteria.

I don't think that's right, but I'm aware that it's a fact. I don't know whether or how conventions like this, which have been entrenched over many years of twisted gender perceptions, can be changed. On the other hand, if I praise an actress's appearance in my review, I'll be thought of right away as a male chauvinist, and I'll be asked if it ever occurred to me to write about a male actor's external appearance. Incidentally, despite my reputation for rudeness, I have never written critically about the external appearance of an actor or actress. In comparison, an American critic once wrote: I've already knocked everything about this production except the chorus girls knees. Nature had anticipated me there."

I guess that in 40 years of writing, I've noted my impressions of the external appearance of some men (the names are not for publication ). As far as I recall, nobody has complained. But when I wrote recently about Rona-Lee Shimon, who has legs "from here to eternity" (and note that I didn't even dare to hint at my opinion on their shape or say that it was extremely positive ), after she waved them with extraordinary grace to block the entrance of Dromio (or was it Antipholus?) to the courtesan's home in Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors" at the Cameri, I was tolerantly reprimanded by several women who had my welfare in mind.

Laying the ghost to rest

Dealing with parts of people's bodies onstage (as in life ) is a complex matter because of the relations between the genders. But it becomes a real minefield when we start to deal with those body parts that talking about them, in private or in public, can slide into sexual harassment of the viewers, critics, actors and readers of either gender. I cannot say here what is correct to write about and when. I can only recall from my history as a critic comments such as "up the spout," to confess and repent and hope for mercy after the fact, and to try to show that I do make an effort to avoid discriminating between the sexes in the nonsense that comes out of my critical mouth and keyboard.

Sometime in the 1970s, in a cellar on Dizengoff Street, I saw a fringe performance directed by the late Yoram Porat. In one photograph, three actresses stood on the stage, all wearing paper bags over their heads. The audience could see their legs and their chests, since the paper bags had a window at chest height. I wrote then: "The actress who had the loveliest chest had the least beautiful legs." I've been ashamed of that nonsense ever since, and write of it here to lay that ghost to rest. Not because the occasion did not demand that I pay attention to the women's bodies rather than to the women themselves (to the best of my understanding, that was exactly the point ), but because of the foolish insensitivity of my response.

On the other hand, when it comes to the opposite sex, at a party after the premiere of an Italian dance troupe at the Israel Festival in Jerusalem at the amphitheater on Mount Scopus in the mid-1980s, I expressed my absolute enthusiasm aloud at the principal male dancer's "buttocks, like those of a fine racehorse." I'm not ashamed of that statement, but for the rest of that entire evening I had to convince a fairly large group of journalists that my enthusiasm was based on aesthetics and physiognomy and was not intended to conceal or cover other preferences that had little connection with art. And one time, in a verbal review that I gave to a group of theater students whose presentation I had seen, also sometime during the 1980s, I told the actor whose role required him to be nude onstage: "Listen, I saw you had a penis, but I didn't feel that you had balls." That was harsh, maybe not educational, but it conveyed what I wanted to say. Incidentally, that actor is now a pillar of theater and television.

Ahead of the conclusion, I encountered a theoretical problem within these contexts. In modern opera productions, principally those that occurred in the distant past, historical and the biblical, directors male and female called for freedom for their works. In all musical bacchanalia an audience of choir singers and dancers naked as the day they were born are brought onstage. This already doesn't cause anyone's back to stiffen (or any other body part ) and opera singers know that this is probably a professional risk. But in one of these stage opera bacchanalia on the stage of the Israeli Opera, and also in London's Covent Garden (in "Rigoletto" ), I saw female singers and naked dancers that were raped and penetrated by male dancers wearing tight loincloths. I saw and I got annoyed. Why do they strip the women and not the men? Weren't gender repression for years and the feminist revolution enough for men to be required to stand themselves to the test of full frontal nudity onstage?

In theater, incidentally, this hasn't been a problem for a while. I didn't conduct a statistical study, but I venture to say that at any given moment there are more men completely naked on theater stages around the world than women.

While they dance and sing on the stage things that a maid didn't see at sea, I began to answer myself. True there is a lack of gender equality, but do I want to see before my eyes dozens of members in different states tossing back and forth and shriveling? In contrast to women's curves that flow in a harmonious manner with the movement, they stick out in every direction with a certain helplessness.

Actors and aesthetics

It's true, I said to myself, it's not alright that men aren't completely naked at a bacchanalia, but for the sake of aesthetics it's better that way. And I, a man, am ready to admit that the naked male body, when not in erotic or immediately sexual context, is much more ridiculous than the female body. If that is my male aesthetic opinion, well that is what I have.

On the matter of Tomer Sharon and the challenge posed before him, it is true that I couldn't deal with speaking to his body. Nevertheless, his onstage embodiment I saw at least twice. Since I don't trust my memory, the personal or gendered, I prefer to bring testimony from theater critic Dafna Lustig, who wrote in May 2003 on the Israeli news website ynet about the play "The Full Monty" at Habima. "At the end we see the penis of Tomer Sharon and Guy Zuaretz, and this in itself is an event that immediately provides a return on the investment in a ticket - six dicks flopping in the closing scene," writes Lustig. "And if we look from up close, we understand that even with just a medium-sized penis you can be an actor at Habima, succeed at life and attract women, and the bottom line is that this is the most important message of the play. It was great, to go, certainly to go. Does someone have the telephone number of Tomer Sharon?"

These days, Sharon plays in the play "Lysistrata" at Habima in the adaptation by Eli Bijaoui and Udi Ben Moshe. In this version, the generals of the central command are forced to swear off sex until they declare peace and their male organs refuse to obey orders. In rehearsals he was photographed in the uniform of a Greek soldier with his fairly long personal spear - a stage accessory, not the thing itself - standing out between his legs, but this candidate didn't show up to the play, and Habima didn't authorize publishing a photo to prevent damaging the play. Look at the photo that was permitted to be published, in which Tomer Sharon hugs a pillar and you will think about what is hiding behind the pillar and what exactly this phallic pillar represents on the stage. Indeed, theater itself began as a festive, wild dance around a phallus. Only afterwards we began to focus on words in their own right.

Yes, this is the entire answer. On the stage, the representation of the thing itself always appears, whether it is man's body or its organs in imagination or in reality. I don't speak in criticism of the real thing (for that there is life ), but to their representation. In the play "Lysistrata," the representation of the penis of the character played by Tomer Sharon certainly meets the task. Beauty, as is known, is in the eye of the beholder. Pornography, as is known, is in the loins.

That's it. Handelzalts has written it up. Was it worth the wait?

Tomer Sharon in “Lysistrata”: Sometimes a pillar is just a pillar - and sometimes it isn’t. Credit: lJarel Alon