Meet Yusuf, an Arab guy who sells male virility products made of zaatar (a Mediterranean herb) to Jews for the sake of co-existence. To increase sales, he decides to put on a show with a puppet named Sumsum only to find that Sumsum won’t cooperate.
Yusuf is the protagonist of “Zaatar Poisoning,” a new play premiering from Palestinian writer and artist Ala Hlehel at the 2012 Israeli Fringe Theater Festival, also known as the Acco Festival, in the ancient city of Acre.
Running during the Sukkot holiday from October 1-4 in the northern port city, Israel’s oldest performing arts festival features a whole host of experimental theater and events.
At a press conference this week, organizers announced the construction of a new 1000-seat hall to host festival events, noting that they have managed to maintain the festival budget, despite widespread cuts in culture spending across the country.
The festival is supported by the Ministry of Culture, the Acre Municipality, the inistry of Tourism (to a lesser degree this year) and the National Lottery. Relations between local and national government in Acre are currently strained.
“Despite this,” thus city Acre mayor Shimon Lankri, “we are not giving up on the festival as a main event that has been important to the city for the last 33 years.”
True to form, the Acco festival presents a unique roster of works that push the boundaries of performing arts genres. Part of the reason for its ambitious lineup is the vision of its curators, Smadar Yaaron and Moni Yosef, who have been at the helm for the past four years. This year, however, will be their last. Next year the two will make way for veteran actor and director Gil Alon, who has been active on the Israeli fringe theater circuit for years.
This year’s festival will open with a documentary film about Yaaron, an iconic performing artist in her own right. The film, by Honi Hame’agel, follows her career over the years, offering insight into the complicated history and unique process of this extraordinary performer. Yaaron and Yosef will receive a special award for their contribution to the festival at the opening ceremony, which will boast performances by singer and actress Miri Mesika and the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company.
A smorgasbord of festival offerings
Over 70 shows will be held throughout the festival by over 350 artists in approximately 500 performances. Apart from the 11 original plays in competition, there will be many street performances, special festival productions and guest productions from abroad.
Among other intriguing offerings is “GIANT, or everything you wanted to know about nothing but were afraid to ask,” a marathon theatrical experience that lasts 12 hours and runs all four days of the festival. The work, by director Ariel Efraim Ashbel, features a dedicated and apparently tireless cast of Israeli and German actors.
“Polio,” a play taking place at an Arab school and featuring local schoolchildren, explores fundamental questions about the essence of education. The play’s creators, Hila Golan, Niva Dloomy and Ariel Nil Levy, won the festival competition two years ago.
The young artist Oded Liphshitz wrote and will direct “Kigler: His Life and Death,” in which the actor David Kigler plays himself. Yael Tal returns to the festival with a satirical play called “A Donkey Eats an Orange.” Raz Weiner, Yonatan Kunda and Neta Weiner – members of the band System Ali – will perform “We’re Building a Port Here,” a collection of songs, skits and dances. The choreographer Aharona Israel will perform “Marathon,” a dramatically physical performance that intensifies before the audiences’ eyes.
Beyond the theater walls, audiences will find Compagnie with Balls, a huge marionette parade from the Netherlands, and Circus Y, performing an aerial acrobatics show called “Gravita.” Nadine Boomer’s well-known dance company will perform a new show and artist Emily Cage brings a biting piece of burlesque.
When asked how present the social justice protest movement will be in performances this year, Yaaron replied that “there will be shows and also poetry performances that deal directly with the social justice protest. But with regards to the theater I assume that a few more years will pass until material has solidifiedabout the social crisis the country is going through.”
Yaaron said that, over the years, the Acco festival has veered toward the mainstream of Israeli theater production.
"Today, however, the Acco festival needs to be strengthening the weaker elements of Israeli theater," she said. "The festival is a platform for alternative and oppositional expression, both in terms of content and aesthetics."