Italian playwright Eduardo de Philippo "uses the image of theater to talk about life. That appeals to me," says director Udi Ben-Moshe, whose production of de Philippo's The Great Magic resumes previews at the Jerusalem Khan on September 13.
"Like other plays I've done, it speaks of people who latch onto illusion to get through their lives," he says.
Paradoxically, life is never more real for Ben-Moshe than when he's in the rehearsal room. Soon he'll start on Moliere's Scapin at the Khan, where he's been in-house director since 2006.
The plays he's directed there have included Gogol's Marriage, The Fire Raisers and most recently, Nissim Aloni's The American Princess. They are all a bit offbeat, larger than life, requiring - gulp - a real effort by the audience to suspend disbelief, which is exactly the way Ben-Moshe wants it: an active, participatory audience.
"They can't just sit back and say 'give me a good time,'" he said in an earlier interview.
The Great Magic, a very black comedy, fits those bills. It tells the story of a man, a magician and the power of the mind to create an alternative reality. A seedy, fast-talking magician has a show at a resort hotel. For one of his tricks, he makes a beautiful woman disappear. She steps into a giant Egyptian mummy case and disappears for good. The husband is frantic, but succumbs to the magician's insistence that only he has the power to bring her back.
Actually, the mummy case (de Philippo's stage directions call for one) was all Ben-Moshe originally wanted onstage, but the Khan theater does not lend itself to the minimalism that characterizes his shows. "My imagination works better in a bare space because it represents all possibilities. I breathe better in an empty space," he observes. "The second you make a choice, you decrease the possibilities. In life, you have to choose, I recognize that. But in theater I don't have to go with that. That's why it's theater."
FOR BEN-MOSHE it's always been theater, and when he stopped acting, he slid naturally into directing, admitting, "I think it was always there, bubbling below the surface. In school, I used to direct my partners."
For him, the essence of the play is the situation, how it works on the characters and what they do to deal with it. "But that's only half, because with every rehearsal the need is to go deeper, like peeling layers off an onion. I need to find the way to every actor as an individual, something I absorbed from Nissan Nativ. And I was an actor - that helps."
He's 42 now, tousled, a bit chunky. He has brown eyes, the kind that make you want to pat him, and a dimple in his right cheek when he smiles. He bites his nails. His modesty is genuine.
The youngest of three siblings, Ben-Moshe was "a performer from the word go." He grew up in Ramat Hasharon, went to the Thelma Yellin High School of the Performing Arts, was a member of the IDF theater group, studied acting at Nissan Nativ and spent eight years as an actor at both the Haifa and Orna Porat Children and Youth theaters.
The first show he directed was an independent production of Neumann - a Soldier's Tale by Khan artistic director Micki Gurevitch, whom he regards as both friend and mentor. Before the Khan, Ben-Moshe learned his craft on productions at both the Nativ and Yoram Loewenstein studios. The first show he directed at the Khan in 2006 was Summer. It got seven Israel Theater Prize nominations.
And at the Israel Theater Prizes in 2007, Marriage won Best Comedy while Make My Heart Flutter, by Hanoch Levin (Cameri), won Play of the Year. Another Cameri production, The Good Person of Szechwan, won him Israel Theater Prize Best Director last year.
His success brings with it a certain flavor-of-the-month adulation. Doesn't it?
"I work. My reality is the rehearsal room, where I need to confront my own uncertainties. That's why I choose such different subjects. I feel I need to stretch myself continuously. When I'm in rehearsal I'm not the Udi who won the awards. It's nice, but it's not what's important. And it's not terrible to fail. I'm aware that can happen, but you learn from it and go on."
Theater, the best kind of theater, shows us to ourselves. Which is what Ben-Moshe wants. Moreover, he also wants "to learn, to develop, to grow." One suspects he'll do just that.