Michael Handelzalts
January 31, 2012 - 1:00am

In a normal - not to say ideal - country, discussion of a production of Federico Garcia Lorca's "The House of Bernarda Alba" would deal with the production's artistic merits. But we are not living in a normal country, and so before I discuss the artistic values of this production at Tel Aviv's Tzavta venue, I have no alternative but to set forth the background to this production.

Israeli-Arab actor Mohammed Bakri produced a film, ostensibly a documentary, about Israel Defense Forces action in the Jenin refugee camp during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. "Jenin Jenin" (which I haven't seen ) apparently depicts IDF soldiers as war criminals. The Israel Film Council's censorship board banned its screening. Bakri petitioned the High Court of Justice, which revoked the board's decision on the grounds that "freedom of expression is a central value of the democratic system. In order to impinge on it, it is necessary to show that there is a definite danger of damage to public order. It is not evident that this applies in this case."

Five soldiers then sued Bakri for slander, but both the district court and the High Court rejected their appeal. Nevertheless, all justices criticized both Bakri and the movie harshly, even though all ruled in his favor.

Now Bakri is taking part in a production that has nothing to do with Jenin and the occupation and deals entirely with the oppression of people (in this case, Bernarda's daughters ) by other people (Bernarda herself ) through the themes of passion, gender and socioeconomics. Of course, this is relevant to audiences here and now, but it is also somewhat universal.

However, this view is not shared by the people of Im Tirtzu, a nongovernmental movement that takes its name from a Hebrew translation of Theodor Herzl's Zionist articulation "If you will it, it is no dream." The organization was established in 2006 against the backdrop of the Second Lebanon War, and in the wake of accusations against Israel and its army over their conduct and acts to strengthen and promote Zionist values in Israel. The group is waging a public campaign in the media attacking Bakri, whom it calls a liar and an inciter, and its members also declared they would demonstrate on Monday at Tzavta against giving Bakri the stage.

Incidentally, the Academy of the Performing Arts, which is behind this production, is dedicating it to the memory of one of its best and most beloved teachers, Juliano Mer-Khamis of blessed memory, who was murdered in Jenin where he worked in theater.

I am a fanatical believer in freedom of expression in our society. Even if I fail to grasp how a personal vendetta against Bakri (as opposed to forms of debate and struggle that are available in a democratic society ) serves the Zionist aims upheld by the Im Tirtzu people, I have no choice but to defend their freedom of speech.

They have appealed to a person they see as their ally, Culture Minister Limor Livnat, and she has replied, as can be expected of a culture minister in a democratic society, that "the ministry, and of course the minister, cannot intervene in the artistic choices of cultural organizations supported by the ministry, even if they are controversial." However, she also said that "the ministry would expect the Tzavta administration to have exercised further independent judgment before putting on a production starring a person whose film was described by Supreme Court justices as slanderous calumny aimed at distorting reality in order to defame IDF fighters and depict them as war criminals."

As a believer in freedom of expression I am, of course, obliged to defend the culture minister's right to express her expectations. However, I would expect of her to understand that she is supporting the persecution of a person - in this case, Mohammed Bakri - for expressing his opinion.

Neither masculine nor feminine

The last time Bakri, an indisputably fine actor, was seen on an Israeli stage was in 2003, in Shlomi Moskovitz's "Seven Days," directed by Dedi Baron at the Habima Theater. He played a Palestinian poet who writes mainly erotic poems. As I understand it, more recently Bakri was supposed to have replaced an Arab actor in one play and another theater director did not employ him, fearing reactions like those of Im Tirtzu. That is, Bakri's prospects for employment in Israel have already been affected without Im Tirtzu's campaign against him.

Bakri has appeared in the television series "Land," and he was also a guest on the television program "Portrait," but opportunities to see him on the Hebrew stage are very rare. Therefore, there is special value in the very existence of this production of "The House of Bernarda Alba," directed by Munir Bakri (a relative who studied theater and worked in the Soviet Union, and is now teaching at the Academy of the Performing Arts ).

The production features student actresses from the academy, with Bakri as the tyrannical matriarch, Bernarda. It is no secret that women have historically been discriminated against in dramatic roles, especially when it comes to more mature actresses. In this sense, there is a kind of exclusion of women here (to use a currently popular term ), seeing as the role of Bernarda - one of few parts for actresses at the peak of their powers but past the bloom of their youthful beauty - has been given to a man. However, if we think of theater as the art of creating an illusion of reality while exposing the artificiality of doing so, then casting like this is obvious. Only a man playing a woman - if, of course, he is blessed with the necessary talent and technique - can both create the illusion and demolish it.

There is a limit to audiences' capacity for "willing suspension of disbelief," but there are roles in which the sex of the actor does not really matter. Among these roles, for example, are King Lear or Hamlet for actresses and Bernarda Alba for actors. In Bernarda's case, there is an additional justification, because this mother in a small Spanish village has internalized patriarchal values and behaves like a man in every respect.

Bakri's performance on the stage has a particular splendor - his tall stature, his slow and measured movement and his expressive face furrowed with wrinkles that dominates his surroundings from under a gray "Golda" wig, along with the special way he pronounces "aleph" and "ayin" almost as consonants, and the way his voice somehow emerges deeper from his throat, perhaps from the top of his chest. His voice is neither masculine nor feminine - he has not been blessed with what might be called a beautiful voice. It is cracked, as though scorched by smoke and a hard life. It seems to me that in the performance I saw on Sunday he was having problems with his voice. However, Bakri has the ability and the experience to enlist for his voice a power that does not derive from the vocal chords or even from lung capacity. He knows how to load every word with emotional tension and even when he strains his voice to its limit he does not sound strained.

Perhaps this is the greatest lesson Bakri can give the student actresses playing alongside him. Since they are students, I will not mention their names, especially as some of the roles are played by two actresses alternately. Most of them are blessed with charm and what looks like a talent for acting - they have certainly understood their characters, their tasks and the dynamics among themselves. Some of the actresses appear to be more experienced and skilled and have created whole, rounded characters - for example, the character of La Poncia, the housekeeper who is the play's voice of reason. Others appear unripe and act in an almost amateurish way, mainly in the smaller roles. One fault is evident in nearly all of the student performers - everything goes well until emotions begin to rage. Then, the feminine voices, some of which are insufficiently honed in terms of both voice production and pronunciation (for example, in the performance I saw, the actress playing Adela had trouble with the sound "sh" ), disappear and become a kind of screech or scream that creates an uproar without the support of emotion to carry it. Here Bakri's skill is a huge lesson.

Playing for laughs

The director has chosen to make use of nearly every moment that allows for a comic interlude - and there are several, even in this play saturated with emotions - in order to get a laugh from the audience. Perhaps this makes sense, both because the young actresses are not able to play old women convincingly (for example, the character of Maria Josefa, Bernarda's mother ), and because it is necessary to have some comic relief in such a passionate drama that leads to violent denouement, especially when you don't have at your disposal a cast able to maintain tension from beginning to end. In the performance I saw, the atmosphere relaxed so much that Bakri allowed himself to improvise a rhymed text.

But this is also the production's weak point. All too often the drama is interrupted, after a well-done moment, and sinks into banal stage business in order to begin cranking up the drama in advance of the next conflict. This damages the emotional dynamics of the entire performance and, in the end, it lacks a powerful release of tension when it reaches its peak - that is, catharsis. In the performance I saw, Bernarda's despairing declaration that her daughter Adela has "died a virgin" was greeted with a dismissive giggle by some audience members though it appears this was not the play's intention.

Bernarda's tragedy is that she is imprisoned in the conventions she has imposed upon herself to the point that the catastrophe in her family teaches her nothing.

There are, of course, several further ironies in the entire production. Bakri, who in Israeli reality is the equivalent of Adela - a character prepared to grapple with the constraints of convention in the name of her truth - is playing the conservative and patriarchal Bernarda who, if she were living in Israeli reality, would most probably be supportive of Im Tirtzu's actions. The excluded "other" - the Israeli Arab who poses a challenge to our enlightenment, the threatening male - steals the role of the woman who has internalized all oppressive values.

Beyond that, there is a theatrical experience here. Not perfect, but one that raises questions and offers the audience an encounter with an actor who has a unique personality that is all too infrequently found in purely dramatic-theatrical activity, and with a group of students that is swept up by his charismatic figure as well as with this classical work.

If you will, this is theater the way it should be - exciting, amusing, interesting, affording unusual food for thought and unsatisfying. All the things that don't interest the members of Im Tirtzu.


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