Daily Archives: June 8, 2019

Gitai’s Elegiac and Abrasive “Letter to a Friend in Gaza” Strikes a Nerve

Review: World Premiere of Letter to a Friend in Gaza at Spoleto Festival USA

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By Perry Tannenbaum

 

A rarity in the US, anti-Israel theatre pieces are nothing new in Europe – more than a couple were running when I first visited the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2005. So it wasn’t surprising to me that the artistic team for the world premiere of Letter to a Friend in Gaza were flying in to Spoleto Festival USA from across the Atlantic; hailing from France, Germany, and Israel; some with Syrian, Iranian or Palestinian roots.

What was surprising was that documentary filmmaker, theatre director, and actor Amos Gitai, the creator of this multimedia piece at Emmet Robinson Theatre, is a native Israeli who resides in Paris and Haifa. He served in an Israeli military helicopter unit during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, was shot down by a Syrian missile, and the 8mm film footage he shot during his service triggered his career.

As a lifelong supporter of Israel, now planning my third trip to the Holy Land late this summer, what really rattled me was hearing the most damning descriptions and denunciations of Israeli military actions spoken in Hebrew – with substantiating film projected behind the performers with English captions. What we heard in Arabic, mostly from poet Mahmoud Darwish, was comparatively benign, lyrical, and poignant. Touching, really, as delivered by father and daughter Makram and Clara Khoury, Israeli actors with Palestinian roots.

Sarah Adler’s Hebrew descriptions, quoted from Ha’aretz newspaper correspondent Amira Haas, were read in a just-the-facts Dragnet monotone that probably shortchanged the journalist. Another Hebrew text by Yizhar Smilansky (also known as S. Yizhar) is more confrontational, children asking their parents tough questions about their horrific deeds or acquiescence and getting weak answers that echoed Nazi war criminals responding to their accusers.

Before the actors took their seats at a long table outfitted with microphones and video cameras, there was a curious and chaotic film representing the sacking of the Holy Temple by the Romans and the expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem. Lots of darkness, flames, and fleeing people, with a narrator reading from Jewish historian Flavius Josephus’ Antiquities – written under the watchful eye of the Roman Empire and its emperor.

That account eventually dovetailed with a litany of Arab villages remembered by the Khourys that had suffered a similar fate and survived only in nostalgic memory. What Gitai was obviously sketching was a Palestinian Diaspora that should resonate deeply with Zionists and Jews, whose storied Diaspora lasted 19 centuries from Roman days until the hotly disputed founding of Israel.

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Palestinian nostalgia was sweetened – and saddened – with elegiac music played on violin and oud, with singing from assistant director Madeleine Pougatch, who filled in for one of the performers whose visa was held up in administrative red tape. While Pougatch was singing, the multimedia presentation was most effective as the cameras facing the Khourys sprang into action and their video images were projected behind them – processed so that the live actors looked rather ghostly behind themselves.

Gitai didn’t join the actors onstage until late in the action when he read what sounded like an Israeli apology to the Khourys but was actually an excerpt from Albert Camus’ Letters to a German Friend. Just in case you had missed the Nazi analogy earlier.

While Letter to a Friend in Gaza was often cogent, powerful, and convincing, it was also one-sided and abrasive at times. There was plenty slingshots-versus-tanks and David-Goliath imagery following up on bombed-out footage shot Gaza and/or Occupied Territories, but not a single image of terrorist actions or carnage inside Israel. At the Sunday matinee I attended, people walked out during the show and afterwards while Gitai was sitting down for a talkback moderated by festival director Nigel Redden.

Undoubtedly, kindling controversy and sparking discussion were prime aims for Gitai in creating this piece and for Redden in staging the world premiere at Spoleto. They’ve definitely hit the bullseye on those counts with a piece that deserved more than five performances in Charleston. Letter to a Friend in Gaza is slated for another brief run at the Theatre de la Ville in Paris, September 4-7, and Gitai is reportedly in talks with Cal Performances at UC Berkeley.

 

Theatre Charlotte’s “The Producers” Is More Politically Incorrect Than Ever

Review:  The Producers

By Perry Tannenbaum

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When I first saw Mel Brooks’ The Producers on Broadway in 2001, my disappointment in not seeing Nathan Lane in the role of Max Bialystock was assuaged by the realization that the show was still so damn good with last-minute replacement Brad Oscar filling the megastar’s shoes. Each of the successive versions I’ve seen in Charlotte – the national tour at Ovens Auditorium in 2004 and the CPCC Summer Theatre production at Halton Theater in 2009 – has only strengthened my conviction that Lane was not an essential ingredient in the show’s success.

But isn’t it too much to expect a smashing Producers at Theatre Charlotte, where they don’t have a Broadway-sized budget – or even a spacious orchestra pit like the Halton’s? Make a couple of allowances and then prepare to be astonished.

Scenic design by Chris Timmons is cheesy, even by community theatre standards, and there are no live musicians in sight – or out of sight – at the Queens Road barn. Once you get past those visible and audible austerities, you can revel in the costume designs by Rachel Engstrom, so crucial to the big “Springtime for Hitler” climax, and in the deep cast, so necessary in putting over Brooks’ comedy and his schlocky score.

Benefitting from the embarrassment of riches that showed up at auditions, director Caroline Bower hasn’t squandered her good fortune. In David Catenazzo as Max, she has found a leading man who is as seedy as Timmons’ scenery. Mostly a secret kept in recent years by JStage at the Levine Jewish Community Center, where he has starred in A Year With Frog and Toad and Fiddler on the Roof, Catenazzo proves to have a strong singing voice to go along with his comedic gifts. He absolutely oozes corruption, eager to enlist humdrum accountant Leo Bloom to cook his books, eager to bilk show investors in a surefire flop, and rabid to shtup Ulla, the voluptuous Swedish actress who turns up early for auditions.

A second solid gold debut comes from Landon Sutton as the diffident Leo, more than nerdy enough for a numbers crusher who discovers how to pocket a shady profit from a Broadway flop. There’s pallid innocence to Sutton’s manner as Leo, plus a little endearing pudginess, that works well when he’s too timid to plunge into the crooked scheme he has inspired. But there’s a surprisingly strong and smooth singing voice when Leo jumps aboard on the reprise of “We Can Do It,” and hormonal heat in “That Face,” his serenade to Ulla.

Brooks’ book and lyrics are so politically incorrect that they still seem to draw a pass from the audience – apparently willing to overlook the sexist attitude toward Ulla and the mockery directed at Franz Liebkind, the pigeon-keeping diehard Nazi who has penned the worst musical script that Max has ever read, Springtime for Hitler. Bower makes the right choices in casting the very un-Swedish Hailey Thomas as Ulla, draping her curves with a modicum of modesty, and limiting her flirtatiousness in comparison with Max’s leering. The Sveedish accent is ba-a-a-d, which is paradoxically good, and she’s positively smashing in her Nazi eagle outfit.

Neo-Nazis are less of a laughing matter than they were 18 years ago, so it’s also wise to have Chip Bradley tone down Franz’s achtung authoritarian qualities and pile on some extra daffiness. The result is the best performance I’ve seen from Bradley, particularly when he shows us all how Hitler should be sung at Springtime auditions. Bradley’s eccentric excellence is sustained when we encounter the Greenwich Village artistes who will direct Franz’s stinker, Roger De Bris and his loyal assistant Carmen Ghia, handpicked for their inabilities.

Here we are blessed with the gay flamboyance of Matt Kenyon as Carmen and the Ethel Merman regality of Paul Reeves Leopard as Roger. It takes a professional-grade queen to pull off Carmen’s arrogant servility and Roger’s ornate Chrysler Building party dress. Kenyon and Leopard have the goods. Leopard is certainly a different kind of Hitler than Bradley when Roger must sub for Franz on opening night.

On my fourth go-round with The Producers, I wasn’t laughing out loud until the Springtime for Hitler auditions, where I found myself enjoying the outrageousness as much as the newbies in the audience. I suspect their expectations were surpassed as much as mine were 18 years ago when Lane’s absence was announced as I stood in line outside the St. James Theatre. Enthusiasm for the Little Old Ladies and their tap-dancing walkers crackled like I remembered it even if the shtick has gone a little stale for me.

Iesha Nyree as Lick-me Bite-me and Layla Sutton as Hold-me Touch-me rounded out the named characters in the cast, which lists another 14 ensemble members who make choreographer Lauren “Loz” Gibbs look good. So what ever happened to the biddie named Kiss-me Feel-me? A victim of downsizing, we must presume.