American audiences to experience an Israeli ‘bridge’ to theater

The cast of the Gesher Theater’s Shosha, which will be performed at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York. One of Israel’s most respected artistic institutions will be on display for American audiences when Israel’s Gesher Theater performs at the …

The cast of the Gesher Theater’s Shosha, which will be performed at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York. One of Israel’s most respected artistic institutions will be on display for American audiences when Israel’s Gesher Theater performs at the Lincoln Center Festival next month.

The troupe has been invited to mark the Centennial of Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer’s birth by performing two plays based on his novels at the prestigious festival.

“This is the fourth time we’ve performed in the U.S. The last time we were at Lincoln Center was in 1998. We were very successful and they tend to invite companies back that they like,” Gesher’s founder and Artistic Director Yevgeny Arye told ISRAEL21c. “They approached us this time and suggested we perform our adaptations of Singer’s The Slave and Shosha.”

Founded in 1991 in Jaffa, Gesher is one of the only bi-lingual theaters in the world performing with the same cast in Hebrew and in Russian alternately.

Arye, who was a reputable and successful stage and screen director in Moscow, laureate of many prizes in Russia, together with a group of his former students and actors, immigrated to Israel together and founded Gesher with $40,000 in seed money obtained for them by government minister, former refusenik and fellow immigrant Natan Sharansky. Their idea was to perform in Russian for the half a million culture-hungry immigrants from the Soviet Union. But Arye soon realized that if they were an Israeli theater, they’d also have to perform in Hebrew.

Gesher means bridge in Hebrew, and the theater has done its part to bridge the Russian and Israeli cultures. While the Gesher has helped Russian speakers integrate themselves into Israeli society, it has also influenced other Israeli theaters to move away from a method-acting style and to follow Arye’s lead in his use of music in his productions.

Gesher has also attracted several young Israeli actors who grew up speaking Hebrew. “The rehearsals are like a mental hospital,” Arye told All About Jewish Theater. “I speak to the Russian actors in Russian, the Israeli actors speak in Hebrew, and sometimes I speak to the Israeli actors in English.”

In April 1991, Gesher formally opened in Tel Aviv with a Russian translation of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead. And since, it has received nonstop accolades. Within a few short years Gesher catapulted to the world’s stage when the London Times hailed it as “one of the greatest and most important troupes in the world.”

Arye relishes the chance to perform Singer in the author’s own backyard – New York City – which was Singer’s home for much of his adult life. The New York Times Magazine named the Yiddish writer, along with Carnegie Hall and the Brooklyn Bridge, as one of the “101 reasons why New York is terrific.”.

Gesher will present The Slave, based on one of Singer’s best-known novels, and Shosha, published in 1978, the year he won the coveted prize. Both have been adapted and directed by Arye, who happily accepted Lincoln Center Festival’s director Nigel Redden’s suggestion of doing Gesher’s adaption of Singer “because, among other things, he knows how to tell a good story.” Gesher debuted The Slave in 2002, and Shosha a year later.

The Slave is a sensual love story about two people of different faiths caught in a maelstrom of prejudice and xenophobia. It tells the story of a yeshiva student who escapes a brutal pogrom in 17th century Poland only to be caught and enslaved on a Polish peasant farm. Wanda, his master’s daughter, falls in love with him. Later, when fellow Jews ransom him from slavery, he returns to his own people to discover that life without Wanda is meaningless. He returns for Wanda and takes her to a small Jewish village where they live as husband and wife. Wanda changes her name to Sarah and pretends to be mute to disguise her Christian identity. The couple finds that life among Jews is not much easier than life among the Poles. The play deals with issues of anti-Semitism and xenophobia but it is also a story of faith in human nature.

In 2003, Gesher’s version of The Slave swept five prizes at the Israeli Theater Academy Awards, including best play, best director and best leading actress.

Shosha is the story of unique characters in unique circumstances, as Singer himself described his novel. The play unfolds in 1930s Warsaw under the ominous shadow of Hitler’s ascent to power. Aaron (Tsutsik) Greidinger is a young writer surrounded by a colorful society of bohemians, philosophers, Communist revolutionists, Jews and gentiles. There are five women in his life including his childhood love, Shosha.

Shosha is a play about what we have all lost, about a world with only a few days left to exist,” says Arye. “Singer wrote Shosha after the fact, not as a sentimental memory, but from the point where the tragic end is already known. When I read the novel for the first time, I felt the characters’ heartbeat. The problems they faced are similar to those we face today, the tug of war between Jewish identity and secular culture.”

The Slave will be performed on July 20, 21, 22, 23, while Shosha will be performed on July 24 and 25. Arye says the 120-strong troupe always gets excited when it performs abroad, especially in the U.S.

“We represent a certain type of culture from Israel and it’s very important to expose it around the world.”