Udi Ben Moshe, artistic director of Jerusalem’s Khan Theater, paced nervously in the stone courtyard on Tuesday evening. He was preparing for the curtain to rise on the first theater production in Israel – and likely the world – in which the cast, crew and audience were all fully vaccinated against or recovered from the coronavirus.
His fears as Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” was about to begin, he said, were not directly connected to coronavirus infections. They were a form of pandemic-related opening night jitters, concern that social distancing and masks could dampen the atmosphere of the lighthearted comedy he had directed.
There were only 150 people spread across the theater’s 230 seats, with empty spaces between every individual or group in attendance. “I’m worried that in order for a comedy to work, you need a full house, and audience members need to see and feel other people next to them laughing. We’ve got a socially distanced audience with masks over their faces, so nobody can see anyone else giggle or even smile,” Ben Moshe said.
After all, laughter, he added – no pun intended – “is infectious.”
But those nerves were mingled with “pure excitement and exhilaration. After all,” he said, “I’m back in the theater after a year of the pandemic. I feel like a fish that has returned to water.”
Ben Moshe need not have been concerned. The strategically distanced audience members who eagerly filled the small theater’s red upholstered seats, nearly all of them subscribers to the repertory company, said were more than ready to be entertained by a light and funny play.
The pandemic had given theatergoers far too much drama in real life: Comedy was a welcome respite, and the audience’s laughter was audible even under their masks.
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“Better a comedy than a tragedy,” said Leah Yerushalmi, 72, a Khan member and self-described “culture vulture,” who added that she was thrilled to be inside a theater for the first time in a year. “I feel a bit nervous, but I got my vaccine over a month ago so I should be safe,” she said.
For Bat-Zion Shuman and her husband Joshua, getting to see the show was a close call. They were officially vaccinated – they counted a full week since their second shot just two hours before curtain. Once the hour came, they rushed to their computer to print out the vaccination certificate that would grant them access to the theater.
“We really missed coming here,” Bat-Zion said. “We wanted to come back as soon as possible.”
Andrea Katz, 68, said she also eagerly grabbed the opportunity to return to the theater as soon as possible. “It feels marvelous, really liberating – almost a return to normality, except for this thing on my mouth,” she said, pointing to her mask. “I feel excited and not at all nervous. It’s so calming to know that everyone here is following the rules, everyone is vaccinated.”
Though a comedy, “Blithe Spirit” also possesses a darker theme that suits the current era, Ben Moshe noted. One of Coward’s biggest hits, the play opens with a séance, bringing back the ghost of protagonist Charles’ deceased wife, Elvira. She then haunts the hapless novelist and his second wife, Ruth, wreaking havoc in order to sabotage her ex-husband’s current relationship.
“Blithe Spirit” was originally scheduled to premiere in September. The cast had managed to begin rehearsals, but the theater was closed ahead of the long autumn lockdown and remained shut through the third closure in December. In the summer months, like other small theaters with a courtyard, the Khan had made an effort to revive activities with socially distanced outdoor performances. With the third lockdown lifting and the vaccination certificate plan in place, the theater has opened its doors again for indoor seating.
“Nobody has sat on these seats for eight months,” the theater’s director general, Elisheva Mazya, marveled as she welcomed the audience before the show. She said it was an honor to be “ahead of America and most of Europe in bringing live theater back.”
The show premiered as nearly half of all Israelis had received their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, and over a third of the country was fully vaccinated. The “green passports’’ were made available online to those eligible and permitted holders to attend theaters and concerts, and stay at hotels.
Khan took an early gamble, bringing its entire staff back in early February in hopes that theaters would be able to open soon. It put “Blithe Spirit” into accelerated rehearsals.
“We had been worried about getting our motor running after we hadn’t rehearsed the play in so long, but it was fantastic to finally be performing in front of a living, breathing audience of real human beings,” actress Odelya Moreh-Matalon, who plays the over-the-top medium Madame Arcati, said after the show.
“You can’t replicate that feeling anywhere – not on Zoom, not on the phone, not on any screen,” she added. “We could sense the audience was with us the whole time. They had been thirsty for the contact, too.”
There had been challenges to overcome on the way to opening night, Ben Moshe said. Most significantly, after the theater reopened, he learned that a handful of the cast and crew were not yet vaccinated. All of them ultimately decided to do so, without threats or coercion, “out of a spirit of camaraderie and because they felt part of an ensemble,” he recounted.
The company received a surprise backstage visit from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a few hours before the show, setting off a small offstage political drama. President Reuven Rivlin had been scheduled to attend the show, but canceled when he learned Netanyahu was slated to appear. Rivlin explained that it had become “clear that it would take on a political tone” ahead of the March 23 election.
Asked what he thought of Netanyahu’s decision to visit, Ben Moshe smiled and said diplomatically, “I think it’s a shame he didn’t stay to see the show.”
Culture Minister Chili Tropper and Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon made their scheduled appearances ahead of show time and then remained to enjoy the play. Leon said he was proud that the city was leading the way with the country’s first performances.
“The moment we were given the opportunity to bring back culture, we knew we had to do it,” he said, promising a spring and summer in the capital packed with events.
After the show, ushers handed flowers to the departing audience members bearing the message “Thanks for coming back.”
The feeling of gratitude was mutual. “For older people, getting to do something like this was like getting oxygen to breathe,” said Meir Malka, 61, as he lingered with his family after the show, talking and laughing. “It was really exciting to be back in a theater after a whole year. It was so much fun and, because I was vaccinated, I felt comfortable the whole time.”