Iran's recent Holocaust denial conference and growing anti-Semitism around the globe are just two of the reasons to see Badenheim 1939, the latest stage production at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv.
The play, which combines traditional stage work with classical music, is based on novelist Aharon Appelfeld's book of the same name - the story of a group of hedonistic, bourgeois Jews on vacation in the days just before the start of World War II. As they eagerly look forward to the annual summer arts festival in the fictional Austrian town of Badenheim, group members flirt and gossip, while artists in the festival keep busy with final rehearsals. Each of the characters ignores the increasingly obvious signs of the impending catastrophe, all the way until the inevitable roundup at the railway station. Moments before the group is herded onto filthy wagons for the journey east, some still remain optimistic, telling themselves that because "the wagons are so dirty, this must mean we won't be traveling far."
"My perception of the piece was [that it is] about escapism and the delicate relations between, on the one side, European high culture in 1939, and a very extreme barbarism that tries to infiltrate this pure and clean ... classical music festival," says conductor Gil Shohat, who composed Badenheim's score.
Despite the play's nearly 70-year-old setting, Shohat sees parallels between Appelfeld's tragic drama and today.
"The situation we have in the world in general now is that we try to live a clear life - we obey the law, we do nice things, we are polite, and everything is fine on the surface," Shohat says. "At the same time, behind the scenes we're talking about weapons of mass destruction, terrorists, September 11, wiping Israel off the map, crazy stuff. The most important question is, what is it leading to? Everywhere there's a sense that something is going to happen, and instead of dealing with it, we try to escape it."
The experience of the play's characters differs from those of Appelfeld, who was born in Romania in 1932 and lost his mother as a seven-year-old during the Nazi seizure of the country. The future writer and his father were transported soon after to a concentration camp, where his father vanished. At 10, Appelfeld escaped from the camp and spent the next three years hiding in the forest, sometimes joining gangs of Ukrainian thieves to survive. Following the end of the war, Appelfeld immigrated to Palestine, reuniting with his father in 1953 after finding him picking oranges in an orchard.
Badenheim 1939 became one of Appelfeld's most highly praised novels, with England's Guardian going so far as to call it "the greatest novel of the Holocaust, largely because it deals with it indirectly, through allegory and even satire."
Music takes center stage in the new Cameri production of the work, with actor Oded Teomi narrating as dancers mime and act the parts. Sharing the stage with the performers are members of the Israel Chamber Orchestra, who, under Shohat's baton, reflect the mood of the action.
"My goal was that the music would not compete with the storyteller, but rather add color to the narrator's words," Shohat says.
One of the leading Israeli musicians of his generation, the 33-year-old Shohat - who has composed nine large-scale symphonies, 10 concertos for a variety of instruments and dozens of chamber and piano pieces - took two years to compose the score to Badenheim.
"When I composed the music, Applefeld's book was open on the table. I interacted with the text all the time," he says. "I had an intimate relationship with the novel for two years."
While Badenheim is based on a specifically Jewish trauma, Shohat emphasizes his belief that the production could and should grace stages around the world. He says foreign audiences will be able to identify with the plot even if they have no personal connection to the Holocaust.
"I really do believe that Badenheim is not necessarily talking about Jews. It's a piece that deals with hatred, viciousness, war and brutal attacks against any group of people," Shohat said. "The music carries a universal message [greater] than the problem of the Jews."
His compositions could have focused on Jewish music in particular, but Shohat stuck to a more universal premise in Badenheim'
s 27 musical movements.
"I didn't bring out a klezmer band, which would have been typically Jewish," he says. "In the musical movements you have the 'Hora,' but you also have jazz, ragtime ... and many other musical forms."
He's ambitious about the future of the production, praising its ability to awaken audiences to the dangers of the current moment. "Hopefully this play will go everywhere," Shohat says. "The challenges â€¦ go much beyond the 'Jewish problem.'"