The Stage / Arrested Development

There is a scene in "The Policeman" ("Hashoter Azulai"), at Habima National Theater (written by Daniel Lappin, directed by Micah Lewensohn) in which the Jaffa police hunt down the local prostitutes. Azulai, the police officer with the heart of gold (Shaike Ophir in the legendary movie, and Moni Moshonov in the play), joins in late and tries to make a good impression on his superiors. He apprehends Mimi the prostitute (Nitza Shaul in the 1971 movie directed by Ephraim Kishon; Elinor Flaxman in the play), but she wins him over despite making up silly lies to avoid arrest. He is already inclined to let her go, but then his commander notices them and Mimi nonetheless goes with the other prostitutes to the police van that is offstage. Azulai, meanwhile, apologizes to everyone because once again he falls short of his expectations of himself to please everyone.

A toy police van with flashing blue lights crosses the large stage of Beit Hahayal, from left to right (as seen from the audience). The audience laughs at the visual absurdity: How could life-size policemen and prostitutes get into a toy car. It's impossible, as even a child can see. Thus it is a "shortcut" in theatrical language that indicates, while conveying the information, the limits of the play compared to the movie, and its advantages in the language of theatrical symbolism.

And so the wheel does turn: Film, an art form millennia younger than theater yet more popular and with infinitely more means for creating visual illusions, at first needed theater as a source of material. The milestones of cinematic history were based on books or plays. After the silent film era, when the only thing required of actors was for the camera to like them, came the era of talkies; then the movies needed theater actors, who had to learn how to act for the screen: not to project in a big way to a live audience, but rather to draw the camera to them.

For several decades now the traffic has been two-ways: Film still takes successful plays, whether dramas or musicals, and turns them into movies ("12 Angry Men," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," "West Side Story," "Amadeus," "Cabaret," "Frost/Nixon"), while theater has taken successful films and turned them into plays that are occasionally even very successful. Last year, I saw "The Antonioni Project" by director Ivo van Hove at his theater in Amsterdam, in which he adapted Michelangelo Antonioni's trilogy for the stage and gave it a life of its own. On Broadway there have been successful productions of "Terms of Endearment" and "Rain Man" (both of which have been staged by Tel Aviv's Beit Lessin Theater).

While it may be safely assumed that few filmgoers are familiar with the play, there is a more than likely chance that most theatergoers are familiar with the movie. Not only that: As a rule there is a tendency to rework successful films, some of which acquired iconic status, because of the subject or the stars. Theater therefore does not need to offer the spectator a pale imitation of a medium with vast possibilities and glamour that has already been etched in the collective memory, only a unique experience that will prove of its own accord the uniqueness of the theater and its advantages over film. Doing onstage what is impossible to do in film, being similar and connected to the original, and nevertheless different and preferable to it.

When Israeli theater mounts plays based on foreign films, every viewer understands that Yona Elian is not competing with Shirley MacLaine in "Terms of Endearment" and that Sasson Gabai and Lior Ashkenazi are not trying to be Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man." There is an advantage to this because we remember the original and make comparisons to it, but appreciate the experience because "that's what there is."

Things are different when Israeli theater produces a play based on an Israeli film. Here, naturally, the goal is not to bring to life onstage some forgotten Israeli film seen by small audience at the country's cinematheques, but rather to select Israeli films that have made a deep impression on the collective consciousness of the Israeli viewer. That was the case with the three examples that come to mind from recent years, all three produced by Habima and two of them based on the works of Ephraim Kishon. The first, well-known, example is "Salah Shabbati," staged in the 1990s. Kishon was still among us, feeling unappreciated by Israel's artistic establishment, and he directed the play. Ethnic discrimination was a hotter topic than it is today, and Ze'ev Revach as the title character, operated out of an awareness of the discrimination and a desire to "show the discriminators" much more than Haim Topol (an Ashkenazi, albeit working-class) did in the film. The film, in its time, and the play in its time, were panned critically but were big commercial successes. Interest in the social issues was several times greater than the interest in the esthetics. The play, unlike the film, was also a musical and in this regard the theater did endow the film with a new and different element.

The second example is "The Troupe" ("Halahaka"), a film that became an icon thanks to its frequent Independence Day broadcasts and its army entertainment troupe songs and the portrayal of that whole experience, which etched into the public's consciousness a certain kind of Israel existed in the 1970s and 1980s. The play was written by Anat Gov, a successful playwright who also knows the secrets of popularity and is the wife of one of the film's stars. The stage production recruited top, crowd-drawing contemporary entertainers such as Shiri Maimon, Mook E and Keren Peles. Irrespective of the quality of the Habima play alone, if such a thing even exists, the stage version - at least on paper - had enough unique points and entertainment qualities to succeed and survive comparison to the film; in any event it offered Shiri Maimon, Muk E and Keren Peles in a live performance and also trying to act.

"The Policeman" contains no pop songs that are also hits of their own accord (except for the one song from the film, by Ehud Manor and Nurit Hirsch, that says it all and places everything in a nostalgic context, "Ballad to a Policeman" ("If only it were possible to turn back the hands of time"). There is no heightened interest in a social-ethnic issue as in "Salah Shabbati." Azulai is of Bulgarian descent, his wife is Ashkenazi, he has a language in common with the criminals of Jaffa and their clearly Middle Eastern origins, but is also fluent in Yiddish, which he uses to communicate with the "vuzvuzim" (a derogatory term for Ashkenazim), and is familiar with Jewish scriptures from childhood. Azulai is almost the epitome of the ideal Israeli, and therefore his eventual failure (his specialness is recognized, but he too recognizes that he does not belong to this time and place), is much more significant than in the entertainment-oriented movie.

But above all Azulai was a character that was greater than the sum of its parts, greater even than the personality of the man who personified him, Shaike Ophir. The film was entirely a backdrop for him: The strongest images in the film are the close-ups of him (and of Nitza Shaul and Zahrira Harifai). The images needed for the location shots were functional and used film's ability to create a convincing realistic background.

The edge the Habima production has is Moni Moshonov in the role of Azulai-Ophir. Moshonov is indeed the right actor to handle this role and he might also have been able to make it his: He has the ability to combine the comic and the tragic, to be ridiculous and moving with exceptional charm, to make something completely stylized as in a musical (his dance with his own shadow). Perhaps the play would have benefited from the use of a gimmick that is routine for rock concerts: two large video screens alongside the stage that would allow for close-ups of Moshonov.

The play and the performance recreate onstage images from the film: Azulai teaching Albert how to deal with a terrorist, missing a robbery, trying to apprehend prostitutes. It has potential every time it moves away from the film original: when Azulai repeatedly enters his commander's office when a simulation of firing him is being conducted; Azulai's two dream-dances with Mimi; the scene in the movie theater, which calls attention to the fact that the play is a tribute to a movie; the allusion to "The Big Dig" ("Taalat Blaumilch"), which would have been more powerful had the actor had the charisma of Bomba Tzur and become a real presence on the stage). The play sinks into good-hearted gesture each time it quotes from the film, even when the latter is quoting from other films (the bank robbery in "Ervinkeh" camouflaged as a filming of a robbery or the citizens' complaints about the noise of the bulldozer in "The Big Dig"). Here the reality created on the stage, apart from Moshonov himself, seems theatrical and unconvincing, as if it is trying to recreate a reality and in so doing only reveals its weak points.

The truth must be said: The audiences laughs, a lot. I assume that much of it is thanks to Moshonov, as well as Dov Reiser, Pini Kidron and Elinor Flaxman, and much of it is thanks to the sense of familiarity with and longing for a better world. But I felt that what is happening on stage around Azulai is not, as it could have been, brilliant theater, but rather just a compromise between what the film provided and what the theater could provide depending on its means. I wanted the stage version of Azulai to assume a life of his own, and not just to be a tribute. I would have been a lot happier if I had not needed to dismiss Azulai, because the bottom line is that I do like his wife's bourekas. But that is the way it is.