Life is imitating art in Beersheba – at least insofar as this year’s LOGON musical comedy is concerned. This year the amateur theater players of LOGON – “Light Opera Group of the Negev” – will be presenting 10 countrywide performances of Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady. And like the leading character in the play – who goes from rags to riches, and in the process learns how to speak English properly – the leading actors underwent similar transformations in learning the lines for their parts – or at least the Israeli ones who are playing leading roles did. The biggest burden falls on Ruth Reyes Cohen, who plays Eliza Doolittle, the scruffy Cockney flower seller whom Prof. Henry Higgins promises to turn into a lady by teaching her to speak proper English.
Higgins and his friend Col. Pickering enter into a bet: Higgins says he will teach the wretched Eliza how to speak and act so perfectly that she will be mistaken for an aristocrat, even one with royal blood. When Eliza’s mercenary father, Alfred, agrees, Eliza finds herself a resident of Henry Higgins’s home, spending her days repeating endless elocution exercises designed to wipe out her accent, not to mention her bawdy Cockney lingo.
“What happened to Eliza in the play is actually happening to me, in real life,” laughs Cohen, a self-described US “Army brat” with family origins in Puerto Rico. Cohen spent her formative years in Japan, and until fairly recently thought she’d spend her life teaching English somewhere in Asia. Instead, she married an Israeli, made aliya to Ashdod and now, instead of teaching the language, has been learning both British English and the tricky Cockney patter as well.
“I know how Eliza felt,” Cohen says. “Yaacov Amsellem, our director, didn’t want me to watch the 1964 film with Audrey Hepburn too much, because then I’d be imitating her, not playing the character from my heart. So instead I have recordings of Wendy Hiller, when she played Eliza in the original 1938 George Bernard Shaw film Pygmalion. I’m doing exactly the same thing Eliza did. I listen to Hiller’s recorded voice, and then I repeat.”
“I’m even having the same problems as Eliza,” she continues. “When we started, Eliza’s posh British accent came fairly easily, and it was the Cockney I struggled with. Then the Cockney took over – it just invaded my brain. Even in everyday life, I’d hear myself speaking with a Cockney accent. Now I’m working to get rid of that, just like Eliza.”
Another more subtle aspect of Cohen’s life echoes that of Eliza, too. As Eliza the flower seller was transformed from a rough girl of the streets to the epitome of elegance, Cohen is undergoing her own transformation. Born to Puerto Rican parents, not until she was in her 20s did she know of her own Jewish ancestry.
“I was raised as a mainstream Protestant, but I always felt pulled to things Jewish,” she says. “In high school, I even sought out a Jewish Museum to do my volunteer project. When I went in to apply, the lady said, ‘So you’re Jewish?’ I said no. ‘So why are you here?’ she asked. I said I was interested in Jewish history and she was very welcoming.”
“I even wandered into synagogues on occasion, but still, I didn’t really connect,” Cohen recalls. “I always felt very close to the God of Israel, but it’s one thing to feel connected to a story and quite another to find out you’re part of it.”
Not until a chance encounter with some traveling Israelis did the reality of her own Jewish identity sink in.
“I’d spent the summer teaching English in Tibet. All summer, Israelis had approached me, speaking to me in Hebrew, assuming I was Israeli, too. I’d brushed them off, but two days before I was due to fly home, something different happened. Two religious Israeli girls approached me, and wouldn’t believe that I wasn’t Jewish,” Cohen says.
“There was something different about them, something I could see,” she continues. “For one thing, they looked just like me! I spent all my remaining time with them, talking and listening. As soon as I was back in Colorado, I practically moved into the public library. I spent months researching all aspects of Jewish history, searching for my own Jewish roots.”
Indeed, Cohen’s research eventually revealed that her ancestors likely had been part of the Jewish exodus from Spain during the Inquisition. She came to Israel on a student visa, studied at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, then began volunteering at Casa Shalom, the Institute for Marrano–Anusim Studies, working on case histories of other “hidden Jews,” as well as her own.
“Then I met my husband Idan, a Turkish Jew from Spain. Our backgrounds are very similar – their home language is Ladino, so being with his family is just like being with mine,” Cohen says.
Trained in both classical music and jazz, Cohen previously starred in musical theater with the Colorado Opera Theater of the Rockies.
“My Fair Lady has always been my favorite show,” she says. “Now it’s even more special. Both Eliza and I were transformed. I get all choked up when I tell the story – it’s been an amazing experience.”
UNLIKE COHEN, Bernie Goodman, another new immigrant who landed a leading role, isn’t struggling with the language. Goodman is “almost a Cockney,” born speaking just like his character, Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s slightly-tipsy but endearing father.
“My wife Rhoda is the real Cockney,” Goodman laughs. “Her accent is better than mine. Very refined.”
Goodman’s life is almost as colorful as Alfred Doolittle’s.
“I left school when I was 15, became a market trader at 17, and for about 15 years, bought and sold everything from dress fabrics to fruit and vegetables,” he says. “Finally I sold my business to a larger firm and went to work for them, but that wasn’t good. I was too accustomed to working for myself. I quit, and started driving a taxi in London. I did that for over 33 years.”
Few occupations are better for studying humanity that driving a cab, Goodman says.
“I worked the unsociable hours, from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. You meet a tremendous cross section of society doing that – charming, nice people but plenty of rubbish, too,” he says. “I picked up actors, politicians, people from all walks of life. London taxi drivers have the reputation for being the philosophers of the road. If you pick up someone who’s troubled in the middle of the night, they tend to pour their heart out to you.
“I had some funny experiences, too – including couples amorously engaged in the back of the cab,” Goodman recalls. “I picked up one charming young lady and took her home. She paid me, but when I started to move off, I saw her in the mirror, waving her hands, running after me. She’d left her knickers on the back seat, she said.
“If you have a bent for theater, driving a cab is a good thing to do. Ronnie Barker, an English character actor, takes people off – you can tell he studied people,” Goodman continues. “I have the CDs of a Dickens play, Nicholas Nickleby, produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company. I play it non-stop – I love listening to the characterizations, seeing how the characters move. It’s from the man in the street that you learn – the way he walks, uses his hands, moves his head. Everything.”
Goodman studied acting in London, and even won some awards.
“I did Eugene Ionesco, Theater of Absurd, some Jean-Paul Sartre at the Rudolph Steiner Theatre near Baker Street,” he says. “I was very self-critical. The theaters were mostly closed shops so it was hard to find work. I tried to get into a couple of major drama schools, but wasn’t successful. The other thing was, I could have joined amateur companies, but they all had matinee performances on Shabbat, which I wouldn’t do. Eventually I just let it go.”
Things began to change when the Goodmans visited Israel during Pessah five years ago.
“There was a small real estate office in our Herzliya hotel, so we stopped in. The agent took us all over but we didn’t really see anything in our price range,” he says. “Then he mentioned Ashkelon, and we wanted to look there. In one development, only one block out of four had been built, but he showed us the model flat. My wife and I looked, neither of us spoke a word, but we came downstairs, went into the office and signed on the spot. We went back to London, sold everything and made aliya in September 2008. We haven’t a single regret.”
Before LOGON, Goodman did a monologue at the Old Barn Theater on Moshav Orot.
“I played a real Cockney old man, sitting in my chair in an old-age
home, looking out the window, reminiscing. Some people from LOGON saw
that performance and encouraged me to audition for My Fair Lady
,” he explains. “I’m enjoying playing Alfred – he has a bit of a swagger, you know, a cock-a-hoop kind of guy. It suits me.”
LOGON – now in its 29th year – will present My Fair Lady
in venues all across Israel, from February 11 to March 11. For reservations or ticket information, call (08) 641-4081, or go to www.negevlightopera.com.