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...


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