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|A CurtainUp Review
By Allan Wallach
Joshua Sobol's Village, the opening theater work of Lincoln Center Festival 98, is a memory play with a difference. The Israeli playwright's recollections of his boyhood in a tiny orange-growing community in what was then Palestine, are filtered through the limited mind of a boy who doesn't fully grasp what is happening around him.
The device enables Israel's acclaimed Gesher Theater to give the play a dreamlike production. The stage at Alice Tully Hall is covered with foliage in which pieces of household furniture sprout incongruously. It is a setting where talking animals are more at home than on any other stage this side of The Lion King.
But Sobol's device exacts a heavy price. Because the men and women of Village live in the mind of an ageless naif whom Sobol refers to as a Candide-figure, they are flattened to a single dimension. Their love affairs, quarrels and marital difficulties - often observed through binoculars by the narrator and central character, Yossi -- have little emotional weight. Though the actors are energetic and likable, they're obliged to play very broadly, substituting volume for depth.
Much time is spent on such rustic matters as haggling with an Arab manure seller (followed by a spat over the dissolving of manure samples in a family's best glasses) and a goat's fatal inability to excrete the silk stocking she'd eaten. Such concerns may loom large in the mind of Yossi, who's played with boyish appeal by Israel (Sasha) Demidov, but the humor is thin and quickly palls. But when major outside events intrude - the World War II Battle of El Alamein or the Holocaust - they are mentioned only in passing, usually in flat expository sentences.
As directed by Yevgeny Arye, a Russian émigré who founded the Gesher ("bridge" in Hebrew) with other Russian émigrés in 1991, there are compensations, however. Characters arrive and depart Les Miz-style on a turntable. This pays off in a stunning moment at the end, when Yossi, suddenly moved to grief by his brother's death, tries to stop and push back the turntable, as though trying to reverse time itself. And there are some charming light-hearted moments, especially when Yossi and other characters, including, an opera singer-turned peddler, two Italian POWs and the goat's ghost, take a singing spin on the turntable.
But despite the singing and a passing resemblance toFiddler on the Roof, this is no musical. Sobol, whose play Ghetto was seen at the Circle in the Square in 1989, apparently was trying to write a kind of elegy for a lost time. Village begins with Yossi, a gravedigger, introducing the dead villagers seated on both sides of him, in a scene reminiscent of Our Town. In a succession of short scenes, the play flashes back to the years between 1942 and 1947, when a war was raging and Israel was struggling to be born.
Characters, including Yossi's parents (Leonid Kanevsky and Levana Finkelshtein) and his brother Ami (Mark Ivanir) talk about the war and what it will mean. ("In the end we all die," Ami explains to his uncomprehending brother.) But mostly they have more immediate concerns. Ami shyly woos the pretty young Dassi ((Efrat Ben-Zur), though badly hampered by his brother's intrusiveness. Dassi's mother ((Ruth (Lilian) Heilovsky) carries on an open affair with a dashing British captain (Igor Mirkurbanov).
They, along with others in the 20-member cast, are so endearing - at least in Yossi's memory - that nobody becomes upset at any of this. There are no village villains. Early in Act II, when an outsider named Sonya (Svetlana Demidov), a Russian survivor of the just-ended war, tells of her family's liquidation by Germans, it seems as if the play will move into deeper territory. But the moment passes, and soon Sonya is herself a happy villager, caught up in an affair with Dassi's father (Yevgeny Terletsky). Not until the end does the tragedy of war strike home, but by then three hours have passed.
Village is performed in Hebrew, with simultaneous translation available. It is the first of two plays the Gesher is presenting at the festival, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the founding of Israel. The other is Alexander Chervinsky's Adam Resurrected (based on a novel by Yoram Kaniuk), which is being performed (July 14-19) in a circus tent in Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park.