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Historians may agree that Hebrew theater is young and rootless, but that hasn't stopped Amiram Attias of the Ta'ir Theater troupe from digging more than 450 years into the past to revive the oldest known Hebrew play.
An Eloquent Marriage Farce (Bedihuta De'shiduchin) is the streamlined translation of the original Tzachut De'Bedihuta De'Shiduchin, which was written in 1550 by Jewish-Italian playwright Leone di Sommi (also known as Yehuda Somo). Prof. Shimon Levy of Tel Aviv University cites the comedy as the first documented play in Hebrew. The next time a Hebrew play was staged would be some four centuries later - in 1918, when Moscow's legendary Habimba Theater mounted The Dybbuk.
Di Sommi, who lived in Mantua, was a brilliant theoretician and theater director, Levy notes, pointing out that the play was highly unusual for its time because practicing Jews were forbidden to participate in any kind of theater. Even more intriguing is Di Sommi's staging of the midrash tale in the form of commedia dell'arte - a comic Italian theater genre defined by archetypal characters, improvisational dialogue and absurd situations. Commedia dell'arte characters usually wear masks, giving the actors a chance to alter their identities in playful exchanges with each other and the audience. "The masks in this play add to the general confusion, and provide a humorous tool," says Attias, the play's director.
The original story appears in Yalkut Shimoni, an ancient collection of midrashim, as a gloss on the quote from Ecclesiastes: "Everything a slave acquires, his master actually acquires." It tells of a wealthy father who, on his deathbed, finds himself in a quandary: he has no idea how to bequeath his considerable fortune to his son, who lives in a different country. Because the father cannot transfer the money himself, he decides to give the riches to his slave and then bequeath his son the slave - and thus all the money. In di Sommi's theatrical riff on the tale, things begin to go awry when the son's community hears that he has been left destitute, inheriting only one measly slave. His betrothal to a woman he does not love is called off, but his true love, his former bride-to-be's sister, somehow becomes engaged to the now-wealthy slave. In a comedy of errors and misunderstandings, the characters constantly change their minds, thoroughly confusing each other and the audience. But as the genre dictates, the problems are eventually solved and the characters all live happily ever after.
Despite its comic structure, Di Sommi had a serious intent - to prove that the Hebrew language could also be used as a vehicle for theater, as the playwright specifies in his prologue.
But despite his conceptual innovation, Di Sommi's idea failed to foster a revolution. The melding of Hebrew with popular culture would have to wait nearly four centuries before being successfully revisited by playwrights. Even the first revival of Di Sommi's comedy in the modern state of Israel met with rejection.
"We tried to present it 35 years ago at Habima Theater, but because we didn't alter the text, people found it hard to understand. It only lasted one week," explains Attias. "This time, we modernized the Hebrew so the audience can just sit back and enjoy this very special comic drama."
The Ta'ir Theater's parent organization, simply called Ta'ir, aims to create a cultural dialogue based on Jewish texts. It was founded nearly a decade ago by a group of young hesder yeshiva graduates who, like other groups at the time, sought to bridge the gap between religious and secular culture in the wake of the Rabin assassination. Gilad Alfasi, the theater's director, says that much of the secular public, while not interested in becoming religious, displays an interest in Jewish cultural activities. Ta'ir provides a plethora of cultural options, which in addition to theater include informal caf discussion groups and lectures on Jewish texts and films by a wide range of religious and nonreligous speakers.
Conforming to strict halachic interpretation, the Ta'ir troupe includes no actresses. Previous productions contained no female roles, but this one takes the pre-Shakespearean route of having men play women.
"I always say that we have neither women nor money," says Alfasi, entertaining the possibility that halachic leeway might be found for both actors and actresses to share the stage.
Yodfath, a Ta'ir production in a more somber vein, is adapted from a play and novel about the ancient Jewish historian Josephus who left the doomed remnants of the Jewish revolt against the Romans and later wrote a famous history of the events. In the Ta'ir play, one of the surviving Jewish rebels condemns his betrayal, saying, "My knife kills the living, but your books kill the dead." But that same fighter also admits that the memory of Josephus - along with his books - will live on, while his own will be forgotten.
An English-language translation of Ta'ir's long-running play Eved L'am Kadoosh (Slave to a Holy Nation), based on the life of the great Zionist Rabbi Avraham Hacohen Kook, will be staged April 15 at Jerusalem's Beit Moreshet Begin.
"We chose to present this play because it triggers conversation about Jewish history, tradition and culture," says Gilad Merlin, one of the founding members of Ta'ir and the organization's director since 2002.
"So far, people have really enjoyed this play. It's funny and light. On the one hand, it has the feeling of midrash, but on the other, it's pure comedy."
Bedihuta De'shiduchin will be presented Tuesday, April 16, at 9 p.m. at Heichal Shlomo, Rehov King George 58 in Jerusalem, and will run later in Tel Aviv at the Ta'ir Theater, Rehov Brenner 14. Tickets cost NIS 55. Details at (03) 620-5185.