Friday, November 30, 2007

Israeli Drama in Focus

One of the things that strikes most of us from around the world attending IsraDrama 2007 in Tel Aviv is that Israel's theatre community addresses head-on the tragic occurrences and implications of the national stalemate with the Palestinians. Nowhere is it more evident than in yesterday's "In Spitting Distance" by Tajer Najib.

"In Spitting Distance" is a monodrama (another term for one-person show) written by an Israeli Arab who is primarily known here as an outstanding actor. Though he wrote this over a 4 year period with himself in mind as the performer, it is being brought to live by another very talented Israeli Arab actor.

The protagonist is a Palestinian actor and the setting is first Ramallah, a few miles north of Jerusalem, in the West Bank territory. The play opens with a description of how, when and why Ramallah men constantly spit, and this becomes a powerful metaphor in the drama's exploration of the untenable position faced by this man.

He takes a vacation from it all in Paris, where he is totally free, and when it is time to return, refreshed, he is stopped at the airport by French authorities over the fact that his name appears differently on his Israeli passport and his airline ticket (explained as being due to his having a birth name and an official registered name), so he returns to town, gets his ticket reissued to match his passport so he can fly the following day, finds romance with a Parisian woman and is tempted to remain. He also realizes to his horror that his new travel day (in 2002) is September 11th, and that a Palestinian attempting to fly to Israel is the brightest red flag any security authorities could possibly be looking for and that this misfortunate coincidence is just another in a long string of ironies in his life.

Artfully directed and performed, it's a stunning piece of theatre; tour bookings around the world are piling up, but it has had only a few performances in Israel.

Why is that? The director, an Israeli woman, and the author agreed they feared it might be exploited for political purposes as an example of Arab-Israeli friendship and cooperation. (It also appears that at least one major institutional theatre passed on producing it even though they offered a reading of it.) That fidelity of purpose has limited its ability to find venues.

Written in Hebrew by this Arab writer, it certainly was intended for an Israeli audience; but recently, Najib created an Arabic version and performed it in northern Israel. (I asked if it had been performed in Ramallah, since that is the home of the character, and while the author and director did not answer specifically, it appeared clear that it has not been seen in Palestinian territories.)

What is remarkable is the high degree of humor in this piece. The man is so endearing, his agitation so pronounced and his observations of the world around him so keen that "In Spitting Distance" is powerfully entertaining. The audience I was part of certainly laughed and engaged fully, but the director said that when it played in Switzerlard, there was nary a laugh, as audiences there took it as deadly serious, which the artists found disconcerting.

Until next time...


Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Last year, Alison and I discovered a little bar/bistro on Bograshov Street near Ben Yehuda Street, just a couple of blocks from our seaside hotel in Tel Aviv. It was called "Mr. Greenbush," and its 20-something pair of owners were charming, the food was excellent and the atmosphere comfortable. They admitted they were struggling, having opened the place just before that summer's Lebanon war, which killed business.

I returned there last night and it looked the same, but alas, I learned it's been under new ownership for many months and it has a new name..."Pub Lo Bar," which in Hebrew means, "pub--not a bar." Its focus is alcohol now, though it has a small menu for food, and I sampled one of two Shakshuka dishes.

If you're not familiar with this, it's a popular Israeli dish (not sure where it originated) of tomatoes and cheese and eggs. Though it is baked, the eggs are not scrambled or folded in like a souffle, but instead sit in the dish, so you enjoy the wonderful separation of white and yolk. They had an alternative version I will try next time, a Shakshuka with spinach and cream sauce.

Israeli playwright Shmuel Hasfari and I finally connected, and he told me he will take me today "for a plate of hummus." When I mentioned this to Alison, she was shocked: he always said that HE makes the best hummus. Hmmm. We'll see.

Until next time...


Monday, November 26, 2007

A City That Never Sleeps

A good thing for my jet lag, too!

Arrived in Tel Aviv yesterday via Delta Airlines from Atlanta, and all went smoothly. I checked into the Hotel Cinema, where the Institute for Israeli Drama is accommodating me. It's the former Esther Cinema on Dizengoff Square, built in 1939 in the International (Bauhaus) style, like much of this area of town. When I first visited Israel forty years ago, Dizengoff Square was a street-level traffic circle with cafes lining it. I'm not sure when it happened, but they raised the pedestrian plaza above the street (good for vehicle traffic flow, I'm sure) and placed a colorful Yakov Agam sculpture/fountain on top. There's more pedestrian activity a couple of blocks south, near Dizengoff Centre, the main center-city shopping mall.

The weather here is similar to what I left in California--warm, sunny days and cooler nights (actually not as cold as San Juan Capistrano over the Thanksgiving weekend, which dipped into the 40s).

So, last night, I took full advantage of this city's fame for burning the candle at both ends, and dined out, then visited a bar and chatted with the locals there, and finally retired at about 3 a.m. (Of course, that was only 5 p.m. California time!)

Up at 8:30 a.m. and ate a light breakfast (included) in the bright dining room. A full report on today's adventures later.

Until next time...


Saturday, November 24, 2007

Tel Aviv Bound

As Middle East delegations arrive in Annapolis, Maryland next week for the Bush-Rice-engineered parlor games, IsraDrama begins in Tel Aviv, sponsored by the Institute for Israeli Drama, the International Theatre Institute-Israel and the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv.

There will be performances of about a dozen plays, the first of which is The Master of the House by Shmuel Hasfari, at the Cameri--the play I directed at the Laguna Playhouse last spring, and about which I will be delivering a talk entitled "Lost & Found in Translation" immediately following the Tel Aviv performance at the opening session of the conference on Wednesday.

I feel honored to have been asked to attend and to speak to the representatives of English-speaking nations from around the world, assembled to be exposed to Israeli drama and encouraged to produce more of it in their own theatres.

As time permits, I'll be sharing with you regular reports on the performances I attend, the people I meet and the sights and sounds of Tel Aviv.

Until next time...


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

"The Secret Order"

One of the most interesting dramas I produced at Laguna Playhouse was Bob Clyman's The Secret Order. It was about a researcher at a midwestern university who discovers the cure for cancer, is seduced into leaving for "the big cancer institute in New York," where he finds himself out of his league politically as well as utterly and inexplicably unable to replicate his earlier results.

The play was very well received in Laguna in our 2003 West Coast Premiere, by audiences and critics alike, and as it already had a commercial producer attached to it at the time, we had high hopes it might make it to Broadway. There were celebrity readings in LA and New York, directed by Milton Katselas, featuring the likes of Stacey Keachand Martin Landau (in LA) and Eli Wallach and Richard Dreyfuss (in NY).

Producer Norman Twain then lined up a theatre and actor John Spencer (of West Wing) for Broadway. Spencer's untimely death delayed the project until Ed Hermann said yes to Twain, then had to back out for a more lucrative film or tv project. Twain got busy with film projects and the play couldn't make it into the 2006-07 New York season.

At that point, author Bob Clyman requested that the Merrimack Theatre Company in Lowell, Massachusetts, be allowed to produce it. There, directed by Charles Towers, it was also well-received by audiences and critics.

Well, that production came into New York this week, Off Broadway at the 59E59 Theatres, and today earned the best New York Times review any Laguna Playhouse-related play has ever garnered in that publication. Here's the review.

On the strength of The Secret Order, and my continuing relationship with author Bob Clyman, I secured the World Premiere rights to his latest play last year, Tranced, which will have its debut in January. Having sent it to my friend and colleague Timothy Near at San Jose Rep, she got equally excited by it and programmed it for their season immediately following the Laguna premiere. I have not doubt more productions will follow.

Bob is an intelligent writer whose craft has been recognized by many in the theatre world for some time. Indeed, he was a writer in residence one summer at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center's National Playwrights Conference, one of the premier springboards for writers (e.g. August Wilson).

Kudos to Bob on having a New York hit, and here's to many more!

Until next time...


Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Day Without Art?

I'd like to call your attention to this article in today's New York Times, entitled "Who'll stop the ring tones," about the third annual "No Music Day" in the UK this coming Wednesday, invented and promoted by Bill Drummond.
Though it's unrelated, it made me think about the World AIDS Day December 1st "Day Without Art" in the U.S. to commemorate the many artists lost to AIDS. Though noble in intent, this is something that I never quite bought into as the best way to contribute to public awareness of AIDS or to generate funds for AIDS research and victims. One particular LA Times reporter tried to beat up on the Laguna Playhouse when we said we were not cancelling performances on the "Day Without Art," but were providing literature about AIDS and conducting an event to raise funds; we could only satisfy her if we closed down for the day, and we never believed that was in the best interests of anyone. Today, "Day Without Art" is still observed by some arts organizations, with museums hanging black cloth over sculptures and paintings as a sign of mourning and respect. For me, I think Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS has the right idea--for a set period of time, they pitch the audience during their curtain calls and then the cast members (including major starts) stand at the exits to collect any donations people are willing to make.
The show must go on, and it's sad that many friends and loved ones did not survive this disease to be on stage and behind the scenes, but I am quite certain that this is how they would prefer their memories to be honored.
Until next time...

Saturday, November 17, 2007

"The Umbrellas of Cherbourg"

Alison DVRed this, which neither of us had ever seen, and we watched it tonight. This 1964 movie musical featuring Catherine Deneuve and the music of Michel Legrand is a novelty. All of the dialogue is sung a la opera recitative. There are two signature tunes in the film that you will recognize, most notably "If it takes forever, I will wait for you." The boy-meets-girl-boy-gets-her-pregnant-on-his-last-night-before-going-into-the-army story is bland and predictable. The production design presages the psychedelic colors of the later 60s. Deneuve looks like she is the 17 year old she is playing--almost unrecognizable from the actress we have come to know and love. I wouldn't suggest that you run out and rent it, but if you ever have the chance to sample some of it, it's a most unusual experiment that is very much of its time, and worth taking a taste of even if you ultimately don't have the patience to sit the whole film out.

Until next time...


Suzanne Vega

Last night, we went to San Juan Capistrano's Coach House, an intimate concert venue that's been around for many years, to experience Suzanne Vega.

We've been fans of hers for about 15 years, and I think we first discovered her when we were in England and saw vivid posters of her newly released album "99.9 Degrees." Upon our return, we visited a favorite place of ours, the CD Listening Bar, where we sat at a counter and freely listenened to any CDs they had in stock, many of which were used and inexpensive. After hearing her work, we stocked up on several of her albums and have kept current with them ever since.

Last night was the second time we saw her perform at the Coach House--she paid a visit there 5 years ago. But I think last night's performance may have been the better of the two. Her new album, "Beauty & Crime," came out in July, and is characteristic of her eclecticism while at the same time exploring a theme: life in post-9/11 New York City.

The concert was bookended by two versions of her signature song, "Tom's Diner," which is about Tom's Restaurant on Broadway and 112th Street. Most people know it as the place where the Seinfeld gang congregate, and the TV show frequently included an exterior establishing shot of the place. When I attended Columbia University, I ate there hundreds of times -- mostly for their 99 cent breakfast. Vega wrote and recorded the song in 1981, long before Seinfeld came on the air, by the way. Upon her entrance, she launched into her solo a cappella version of the song, inviting the audience to join in humming between the verses--which we all did. At the conclusion of the concert, she offered a juiced up take on it with her band, ambushing us all--then chastised us at the end for not having sung along.

Vega has a comfortable, breezy on stage persona, and fielded with great aplomb the numerous song requests called out to her by attendees (only one of which she played, as an encore). She said she was flattered to hear the suggestions and that, yes, she actually "remembered" some of those songs. One suggestion surprised her; she said there was no way she was doing it, but promised to offer it the next time she came back to the Coach House--after rehearsing it!

The concert was a fairly equal mix of songs from "Beauty & Crime" and her previous work. Most of the older songs were delivered in new renditions; for example, "Left of Center," her famous song from the film "Pretty in Pink." Instead of leaning on its sing-songy quality with full back up as it appears on the recording I have (a live album), Vega sang it accompanied only by her skilled bass player. She imposed an unnatural staccato syncopation to it, demonstrating it's just as great a song when played against "type."

She left us wanting more, which isn't a bad thing.

Until next time...


Thursday, November 15, 2007


Hanalei Bay at sunset

Wailua Falls

Spouting Horn

Kalalau Overlook

Waimea Canyon

Hanalei Bay
Alison & I just returned from paradise--a week's stay with our generous host friends, Dick & Betty Schweickert, in their new condo overlooking Hanalei Bay in Kauai.
This was our first time visiting Hawaii, and we often hear people say Kauai is the island to visit. We soon learned why.
The spectacular sheer cliffs of the Na Pali coast and the Kalalau valley, the Waimea Canyon (Hawaii's own "Grand Canyon") and the idyllic Hanalei Bay on the north shore are surreal.
Snorkeling several days in the reef about 50 feet from the beach, we encountered the famous Humuhumunukunukuapuaa, also known as the triggerfish, and I swam further out in the reef where I coasted along with four-foot long sea turtles! We figured we had seen at least 30 different varieties of fish in the reef.
Dining was superb everywhere we went, from the casual to the fine.
But most of all, it was just a relaxing place to be--80 degrees air and water temperature with gentle trade winds blowing, the occasional shower passing through and providing a great canvas for sunsets, and the vast sky of twinkling orbs and the Milky Way at night.
We also dodged the chickens that roam freely on the island, an always amusing sight.
Great to be home, though, after a week away.
Until next time...

Monday, November 5, 2007

Film Binge Continues

"The Queen," "Knocked Up," "Pan's Labyrinth:"

"The Queen": Having lived through the Princess Diana years and shared most people's fascination with her, this film about Queen Elizabeth's handling of Diana's death held great promise--and delivered on some of it. The raves about Helen Mirren's portrayal of Her Majesty are not undeserved, though it appears mostly to be a strongly studied imitation of a real, living person. The film drags occasionally in its attempt to recapture those days in great detail, though the actual footage has been merged seamlessly in Stephen Frears' imagined account.

"Knocked Up": I'm generally skeptical of films like these that tend to pander to a 20-something male audience, and in fact it does deliver the expected coarseness and crude behavior that makes stunted adolescent guys gleeful. That being said, it's a far more sensitive and acutely observed comedy than I had anticipated, with a sweetness that's sincerely played. Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl share a believable chemistry as somewhat mis-matched lovers whose drunken one-night stand has resulted in an unplanned pregnancy they both opt to work together to raise.

"Pan's Labyrinth": After months of goading by brother Bob to see this, we finally watched it. This is a film of substance and artistry that often surprises and shocks. A young girl with an active imagination who immerses herself in fairy tales finds herself in dangerous circumstances when her widowed and pregnant mother moves them to a remote village to live with the unborn infant's father--captain of a regimental outpost at the tail end of the Spanish Civil War in 1944. He is a brute whose mission is to eradicate the smattering of rebels who still occupy the nearby hills and forests, and that plotline runs parallel to one concocted purely in the mind of the little girl--in which she is a lost princess from an underworld kingdom who must perform three difficult tasks to prove she's worthy of returning to immortality. That director Guillermo del Toro was able to make these two startlingly different worlds coexist within this film while also carefully constructing the fantasy world to be symbolic of the real is a remarkable feat. It's a fascinating tale. (Note that there are moments of violence so graphic one must turn away.) P.S. The film is in Spanish with English subtitles, and the real title of the film is "The Faun's Labyrinth," and no "Pan" character exists in the film!

Until next time...


Sunday, November 4, 2007

Be My Guest

We finally got around to viewing "For Your Consideration," the latest film by Christopher Guest (above, as seen in the film). Once again, he's rounded up the usual suspects of his acting ensemble, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Harry Shearer, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr., Michael McKean, Parker Posey, etc., whom we've become familiar with from his other films, like "Waiting for Guffman," "Best in Show," and "A Mighty Wind."
While "FYC" isn't a side-splitting film (are any of his others, really?), it retains that naturalistic quality that comes out of improvisation. The basic premise is a send-up of Hollywood centered on the creation of a film called "Home for Purim," about a WWII-era Jewish family in the South who speak Yiddish-isms with southern accents and whose daughter returns for Purim dinner (a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar) with her lesbian lover. Most of "FYC" takes place behind the scenes, revealing the egos and insecurities of all involved, and Catherine O'Hara's "veteran actress" character becomes obsessed with winning an Oscar.
Guest plays the director, looking a bit like Albert Einstein. Ultimately, the film is renamed "Home for Thanksgiving" because the distributor, played by Ricky Gervais, thinks it's too Jewish for popular success.
It's not as tightly executed a film as "A Mighty Wind" or "Best in Show," but it's still characteristically "Guest," and we really enjoyed watching it.
Until next time...

Thursday, November 1, 2007


Pumpkin carved by & photo courtesy of brother Bob...
Until next time...