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"Messiah, Messiah," a new play presented by the Nissan Nativ Acting Studio in Jerusalem may leave audiences scratching their heads in confusion, but that's just fine with playwright and director, Rabbi Baruch Brener.
"My goal is to have people leave the play asking questions about religion, language, culture. I want people to begin the process of questioning our conceptual language and realizing how empty is has become," he explains.
Questions are certainly the theme of the play as the actors, all third year students at the studio, spend most of their stage time in various forms of philosophical inquiry. They crowd what appears to be either a European caf or a home for the disturbed during the beginning of the century, drinking copious amounts of wine and pondering the large riddles of human existence.
Among the characters are historical figures, like philosopher Gershon Scholem and critic Walter Benjamin, alongside imaginary characters, such as a gregarious painter, loosely based on Baudelaire.
Most of the dialogue surrounds the concept of messianism. Has the messiah forgotten the Jewish people or have the people forgotten the messiah? The story of the historical false messiah, Shabtai Zvi is recounted on stage as the characters, each in their own way, consider what it means. Even Satan herself, portrayed, unfortunately, as a woman, makes appearances at some points, engaging in intriguing arguments with the male messiah.
The result is a highly intellectual experience which forces the audience to be engaged throughout, if merely to digest the constant quoting of primary sources. Ideas and props are thrown about, as actors spontaneously break into song and dance. A hysterical melancholy surrounds the whole production as characters face the realities of an age in which words and ideas have ceased to have meaning.
In Talmudic style, the characters engage in a lot of discussion. It seems that in this twilight zone of post modernity what remains is the importance of debate.
It comes as no surprise then that the play was born in an atmosphere of Jewish study. Brener teaches both at Nissan Nativ as well as at Kolot, a school devoted to teaching Jewish texts and finding a common language outside of the current religious and secular labels. The play was born of a joint project between the two schools. A year ago, in addition to his classes on movement and speech, Brener began to teach a year-long study session of Jewish sources at the acting studio, choosing to concentrate mostly on the concept of the messiah.
"The word 'messiah' is thrown around. It has become either a fundamentalist concept or else a totally banal word, devoid of any real meaning. By studying it, we tried to reinvest it with authentic investigation," says Brener.
The students created characters based on texts they studied, which evolved into the play in its current form. Brener emphasizes that he wrote the play in stages, only completing a final draft one month prior to opening night. By almost including the audience as part of the discussion on stage, the whole production maintains something of an experimental quality, reflecting Brener's commitment to freedom of thought.
BORN AND raised in a religious environment, Brener found an atmosphere of intellectual freedom at Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz's yeshiva, where he studied for nearly 20 years ago. He describes that experience as crucial to his development as an artist, adding that the unusual rabbinic and creative figures convened there constituted "a revolution within the religious world of a magnitude that has not yet been recognized."
After more yeshiva at Gush Etzion and attending Nissan Nativ for acting, he spent several years in Italy, studying there with director and theater educator Jerzy Grotowski.
Upon his return from Italy, seven years ago, he joined directing forces with Sami Samir, an Arab Israeli, with whom he studied at Nissan Nativ. The two now work together often and Samir functioned as assistant director of the production.
"I see Sami foremost as a gifted artist. We don't work together to be politically correct but because we understand each other and like creating together," explains Brener.
Nonetheless, Brener adds that their mutual understanding may be enhanced by the fact that they are both on the periphery of the Israeli art world. He adds that he sees Jerusalem's marginal status as "a strength" in terms of artistic production.
Brener's disenchantment with the status quo seems to be reflected in "Messiah, Messiah." Many of the play's characters suffer with burning questions, the urge to commit suicide and the feeling they are losing their minds. Yet, he stresses that he does not see the play as ultimately pessimistic.
"I believe in the power of creativity as a kind of messianic redemption. I'm not a revolutionary but people begin to think and then maybe things do change," he says.
"Messiah, Messiah," currently on a short hiatus, will begin another run in March. In addition, Brener will soon begin working on next year's joint Kolot production, which will focus on ritualism in Judaism.
For information on forthcoming shows, contact Nissan Nativ Acting Studio at 02-673-3414.