Shouting kids and grinning adults are following a couple of outsize white rabbits as they process through the milling crowd. Barkers are touting everything from fresh pomegranate juice to beeping, whistling, flashing toys from Asia. The smells of felafel, crepes, spun sugar, baking laffa and grilled meat seduce the nose. Above it all is the roar of 100 generators, and above them the star-serene sky.
This is carnival. This is Hol Hamoed Succot in the Old City of Acre, and the Acre Festival of Alternative Israeli Theater is in full swing. Though most of the throngs that flock to it every year don't much know or care, it's the reason for the four-day party, and this was its 27th year.
Preparations continued unabated while Hizbullah rockets rained down on Acre in July and August. There was only one casualty among the 45 events ranging from the 12 plays in competition to street theater, workshops and art exhibits. This was Za'atar Poisoning from the Acre-based El-Laz Theater. They couldn't rehearse enough because of the frequent alerts, so they had to drop out of the competition.
The festival proper takes place inside the atmospheric spaces of the great Crusader fortress that looms over the old city. Chairs must be placed, the lights hung, the scenery built, the air-conditioning and electricity checked. Performances take place in the Knights' Hall, the Crypt, the Post, the Stair Chambers, Diwan, as if to emphasize the otherness of the theater presented there.
By long tradition and word of mouth, one of the most popular places to eat is Abu Said deep inside the market. Abu Said purveys only humous, and the lines to eat it stretch out the door. Whole families wait for tables, so a lone reporter gets unceremoniously plonked at a corner table where a family of three is already tucking into their portions.
Etiquette dictates that nobody pays attention to anybody else, but when its plates are almost cleared, the mother asks, smiling "Where are you from, then?"
The smile is returned. "From Tel Aviv. And you?"
"Are you here for the festival?"
"What festival? Oh yes. There's plays isn't there? No. We're just here for the day, for a bit of a holiday, and to see the free things. You came for the plays did you? Are they good?"
Some were good, some weren't, and that's usual.
This year's grand prize winner (NIS 45,000) was a memory piece called Aunt Frieda by Naomi Yoeli. Aunt Frieda was her real aunt, the couturier Frieda Orender. The bits and bobs she left after she died were intrinsically worthless, but as the recollection of an era and a life, "they were priceless," as Yoeli said. There were fabric swatches, bills from the great old Paris fashion houses, a trunk, patterns, photographs - all the detritus of memory. With them Yoeli fashioned a sort of living museum which in song, movement and words recreated the texture of her aunt's life.
Shows like Abigail Graetz's finely honed Verbal Wrongs or Kaheref Ayin's superb ensemble piece The Unity of the Name examined the troubled texture of contemporary life using our own sacred works as vehicle. Prize-winners all.
Most people who go to the festival for the theater go for a day and see two or three plays. This is easy because the plays are rarely more than an hour long, and their times are staggered so that people can move from one performance to the other with time in between for a bite or a drink.
The festival campus is a bit of lawn in the middle of what would have been the castle's forecourt. It's the festival's nerve center. Information, the festival management and the pressroom are there, as is a snackbar and a coffee counter, an art gallery and restrooms.
In the forenoon, the place is dedicated to the serious theatergoers - the ones who will see all the competition plays and who (mostly) get complimentary tickets. The paying customers start arriving in the afternoon; and by late afternoon, when the shadows start stretching over that bit of grass, it's packed. Over the beer, the coffee, the hot dogs and the sandwiches brought from home, there's a babel of languages, including English.
But English speakers mostly don't come to the festival. And that is a pity because more and more lately, the festival plays include those where visuals are the text. This year these included Tetris and Rabak.
The latter was a little jewel by Yael Biyagon-Citron, 35 taut and poetic minutes, an Israeli "stations of the cross" as it were, that leads the audience through the childhood, youth, basic training and ultimate fate of an Israeli boy, raised from childhood for the maw of the IDF in this country, where war and extinction are in the warp and woof of our existence.
Tetris was a bright idea that never got beyond its formation. Multidisciplinarity is the trend these days, the idea that good theater can incorporate other disciplines such as music, dance and even the plastic arts. Tetris was a collaboration between choreographer Noa Dar and artist Netty Shemia Ofer. The set was the audience. As it filed in, the audience was measured for height, and then provided with a stool that allowed the head only to poke through onto the stage floor, a raised platform studded with head-sized apertures protected by a metal dome. The dancers interacted among these domes, over, around, among, above and at eye level. The elaborate set - and there was another one that comprised steel towers and elastic cables - was a far cry from the old days of Acre .
"There was makeshift and make do and definitely no air conditioning," says Oded Kottler, the visionary actor/director who was behind the first Acre Festival. "The idea was to make theater that was outside the mainstream because there was nobody who was doing exploratory or new work."
Kottler's own Actors Stage, Tzavta, The Open Stage, were all groups "that did exciting work in the Sixties, but lack of support and money doomed them."
It was past time to reach out again to the new, "but I knew it would never get off the ground unless there was an institutional framework."
The persuasive Kottler got the support he needed from the government, promising he'd back off the idea unless there were at least seven proposals. That first time there were an astounding 38 submissions; and in 1980, the first Acre Festival happened.
Kottler ran it for three years. Since then, there has been a procession of artistic directors, all trying to hew to Kottler's original guidelines: Proposals must come from groups that are not publicly funded or that get together expressly for the festival, and they must be professional.
"We need the festival more than ever," says Kottler, "because our repertory theaters are increasingly commercial and there needs to be this alternative, something that tests the accepted conventions. It's always the extreme that gives art a shove to a new direction. The Acre Festival, and so Israel, will find the balance between the extreme avant garde and the mainstream."
If the result is shows like Rabak, Aunt Frieda, Verbal Wrongs, or The Unity of the Name, that balance is on its way.