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Theatre Journal 53.2 (2001) 335-337
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Herod.By Edna Mazya. Cameri Theatre, Tel Aviv, Israel. 23 May 2000.
Political theatre has served as an aesthetic expression of protest that is more interesting for being hidden within the safety of ambiguity and metaphor. In 1955, a group of Russian actors founded the Cameri Theatre as a collective, something like a kibbutz. In 1968 they produced You, Me, and theNext War by Hanock Levin, a play that ran counter to the nationalistic euphoria after the Six-Day War by warning Israel about the complications of annexing Arab-occupied lands. In 1970, the theatre produced The Queen of the Bathtub again by Levin, which satirized the administration of Golda Meir. It closed after eighteen performances, and the government threatened to revoke the Cameri's state subsidy, but the theatre had discovered its mission. When the Cameri reorganized a year later, adopting the European bifurcated structure separating administration from creative development, it took Levin as its guardian spirit. At the time of Levin's death from bone cancer in 1999, he had become lionized. Edna Mazya, a novelist who began her playwriting career at age forty, is continuing his tradition at the Cameri.
This spring the Cameri presented her play Herod, in Hebrew with simultaneous English translation, which she also directed. Based on the historical king, the regent of Judea, it is a biography about politics and love, but in a contemporary idiom with ahistorical costuming. Herod was an outsider, the son of a convert who built his coalition government by marrying into the ruling political family and courting Rome. As the most controversial figure in [End Page 335] Jewish history, a man who was hated by his people even while he created decades of stability, he is instructive for Israel today. For Noam Semel, the General Director of the Cameri, the play is about brothers at war.
The drama is complicated but not hard to follow, even listening to the English translation through head phones. Mazya crafted an ironic portrait of a man who secured power by destroying his family and suffered psychosomatic torments caused by paranoia and guilt. Mazya's conception was powerfully communicated through impressive production values. Herod was not agit-prop but stage poetry that took one year in gestation and four months' rehearsal. In addition to an engaging murder-mystery plot and outstanding performances, the choreography (Marina Beltov) and design team (Orna Smorgonski, Dror Herenson, and Niv Sade) were also exceptional.
The play opened with Herod's courtship of Miriam, a cynical political gesture that transformed itself into love. In a bare gray space, stage right were Miriam (Liat Glick) and her brother Ari (Ziv Meir), wearing white robes: the blonde hopes of the powerful, entrenched Hasmonean dynasty. Stage left were the swarthy Herod (Gil Frank) and his Ethiopian sister, Shalom (Assi Levi), in dark red. Each pair discussed the nuptials. The casting was not color-blind, Semel explained, but a reflection and comment on the multiethnic nature of Israeli society today. The courtship scene sizzled, as Herod, alone with Miriam on the large stage, crossed to her with dance-like movements. His opening words were direct: "They forced me, too." Miriam raised her hand for him not to approach further, so he stopped, and talked. He was seductive--the politician--kneeling to offer her a morning rose and telling her he was unworthy. In the wedding scene, both were stage left, wearing red, the color of passion and death, with their enlarged photographs, their public images, as backdrop. The crowd outside their room roared.
As in Macbeth, everyone close to the king died. Ari's drowning was presented in pure silence. Having just been named high priest, a new peace [End Page 336] seemed to have arrived, with no suspicions of assassination. He disrobed and descended through smoke and a green light into his bath. His retrieval, lifted by six young men on a bier of human hands, was a slow, painfully beatific pageant. He became all the beautiful young men destroyed by war and ambition. Even the death of the faithful...