The Silence That Follows the Commotion

Public repertory theater exists for the production of challenging plays like 'Hebron,' but the fact that the play is praiseworthy is not enough to make it cohesive or sufficiently powerful.

Just as in the case of the Cameri Theater's recent staging of "King Lear," the production of Tamir Greenberg's "Hebron" is praiseworthy simply for its creators having taken up the challenge. The challenge in this case was to mount an original play by a well-known poet who had never before written for the theater, one that deals with a contemporary situation in all its ugliness and complexity in a different and unusual manner, in unrealistic language (in terms of theatrical language and style), and with a large cast and a complex production in terms of design and music. One cannot overstate the importance of the presentation of the terrible reality of Hebron on a main stage, considering how the repertory theater has stayed away from the subject in recent years.

But having said that, I have to point out the scandalous cultural situation wherein it takes "two large theater companies (the Cameri and Habima) to assume the risk ... of producing a play with a large cast, elevated language and a political context" (per the words of director Oded Kotler in the playbill). I agree with his analysis of the current theatrical situation, but that doesn't diminish from the scandal. It is precisely for plays like this (see above) that we have publicly funded repertory theaters, and these theaters should be able to - no, they should and must! - perform such plays as a matter of routine.

On opening night (and I understand on other nights as well), a group of demonstrators stood at the entrance to the Arison Auditorium (the play also runs in the Cameri Theater building). They protested the play, which in their opinion is an insult to the memory of Jews who have been killed in Hebron by Arabs. Clearly the demonstrators had not seen the play, whose plot begins with the murder of the son of the Israeli military governor of Hebron by the son of the city's former mayor, a murder carried out despite the fact that the governor was punctilious about demonstrating respect for the Arabs under occupation. The plot continues with the murder of the young son of the Arab murderer (the mayor's son) by another of the governor's sons, in a frenzy of revenge and in violation of his father's explicit orders.

The bulk of the play deals with the helpless pain of both sides, which are portrayed here in their humanity. One could also say that the Arab side is presented as being "more to blame," but one doesn't have to be an Israel-hating leftist in order to know that the insoluble situation in Hebron (as a synecdoche for the situation in the occupied territories as a whole) has its origins among a small group of fanatic Jews who have bent reality to their will, out of a sense of divine justice.

Realistic versus mythical

It should be emphasized that Greenberg and the play's other creators were not looking to present a one-sided political manifesto. If the play has a message, it is to lament a situation in which it no longer matters who is to blame and who started it, and we can only watch how the two sides, each with its personal pain, are dragging one toward a terrible disaster, bound in an embrace of death.

The play enables the mothers of both sides to question divine justice (each rebelling against her own God), whereas the men try to maintain their respective faiths. But the playwright brings another factor into the picture, nature. The violation of the order of nature by those who murder one another and refuse to bury their dead causes nature to punish them with an apocalypse in the guise of a plague and conflagration that destroy everything.

That is the vision of the playwright, at the end of which there is a glimpse of hope of consolation (just as in the mythic plays of Hanoch Levin, which have a consoling chorus at the end), and all I can say is that I'm not as optimistic as he: I don't see even a redeeming disaster on the horizon.

But there is no escaping the bitter truth: This theatrical mission rises and falls - in this case it's the latter - on those same "professional questions that relate to the key aspect of work, the style," again, in Oded Kotler's words.

When still a young critic, in the 1970s, I had a conversation with a young director, to whom I complained about a stylistic contradiction in his stage direction. His response was, "Look, you direct as is written, and what emerges is the style."

There was some justice to his words, of course - great artists create the style, and do not create "in a style." But what emerged from the direction in "Hebron" is its weak point. Aside from the lyrical and high-flown language, the play pits realistic characters (settlers, soldiers, Palestinians) against characters from a tragic or mythical or stylistic plane: Warm Spring Day, Olive Trees, Blades of Grass, Mother Earth.

In the program notes, Ruth Dar, who designed the sets and the costumes, refers to the image of the parched and cracked earth on the floor and the walls of the stage, and the tangle of roots that serves as the setting for the event. All of this is well designed and executed, and it is no coincidence that Dar was cited by her peers as a member of the respected group of the 23 greatest stage designers in the world (along with another Israeli, Roni Toren) at the most recent Prague Quadriennale International Theater Design Exhibition.

But this is a realistic-naive and illustrative design vision, which in the final analysis is simplistic and detrimental to the play. It's misleading: Each "frame" - in the photos in the program - looks great. The whole sequence in motion borders on the embarassing. It seems to me that Oded Kotler (who has chalked up a lot of credit as a theatrical leader and actor) has not had much experience with non-realistic theater. His enthusiasm about being involved in the production apparently prevented him from asking the designer for a different, simpler vision, which would have emphasized the imaginative power of the words rather than adorning them. He, or the theater directors who joined forces for this production, should have understood that Dar's design vision does not belong to this text, and even deprives it of its lyrical power.

For the audience of the future

One example should make this clear: Toward the end of the play, a group of actors appear onstage. They stand in several rows, close to one another, all dressed in green, in a fabric composed of folds, with bunches of blades of grass on their heads. The text they chant (with music by Shosh Reisman, a fascinating element throughout the play, which makes a statement about the hope for understanding) is inspired by Walt Whitman: "We, the simple leaves of grass/a beautiful green blanket spread on the graves." Even the spectator with the best will in the world cannot help giggling at this sight, with its naive beauty, and has to agree with what is said on stage - "a pointless commotion followed by silence" - as a description that befits the performance itself and its quality.

A moment later, Palestinian figures are still sneaking among these leaves of grass, passing Israeli soldiers in battle dress. It is possible that 500 years from now (the playwright speaks about the fact that he tried to write for a hypothetical future audience), all these figures will seem equally fictional and stylized. But in Tel Aviv circa 2007, which is only a few dozen kilometers away from Hebron circa 2007, it seems unrealistic and artificial, emphasizing all the problems of the text without finding a creative solution for a single one of them.

One of the sources of tragedy in the plot - and this is a subject that was raised in the past by Yitzhak Laor in his play "Ephraim Returns to the Army" - is that this entire human catastrophe took place because of many people who had no evil intentions (on the contrary, most of them "wanted good, and with an innocent heart," to quote Hanoch Levin), but who are helpless when confronted with the complexity of the situation. But we know that in fact there were enough people (on both sides) with evil intentions, who were terrifyingly efficient.

That is also the sad lesson of this play: It is entirely a story of good will and endless dedication on the part of all the artists, actors and directors. But the enlistment to a cause, and the belief in their intentions clouded their aesthetic senses and led them to produce a work that in the final analysis does a well-intentioned disservice both to the theater and to the political-human issue that its creators were so eager to promote.