Fun on the fringe

The annual Beersheba Fringe Festival offers 30 productions from around the globe

July 22, 2019 21:43
Fun on the fringe

THE CAST OF ‘Habbek Otee Lanetzach, Patricio’ (Embrace Me Forever, Patricio). (photo credit: SALI PETEL)

Willie Shakes may have claimed in As You Like It that “all the world’s a stage,” but there are also grounds to posit that it’s a two-way nutritional street – that, by the same token, real-life events and circumstances feed onstage endeavors. Yoav Michaeli would certainly go along with that premise, as evidenced in one of his recent creations, Habbek Otee Lanetzach, Patricio (Embrace Me Forever, Patricio).

The play is one of several works lined up for this year’s Beersheba International Fringe Festival, which takes place in the so-called “capital of the Negev” July 23-25. Habbek Otee is one of a full 30 works across a number of disciplines by local troupes as well as contingents from Italy, Poland, France and Austria.

Michaeli not only penned the play in question, he has also been the artistic director of the festival since its founding nine years ago, and is one of the prime movers and shakers behind the country’s southern theatrical scene.

The director built up a pretty impressive bio before relocating southward. He grew up in Jerusalem and moved to Tel Aviv to study theater directing. It was there that he lent his evolving skills to a wide cross-section of institutions and projects as an educator and director, including schools, such as the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts, and the Beit Zvi School for the Performing Arts, and worked with the Herzliya Ensemble and at Tzavta.

All that changed around 15 years ago, when Michaeli received an offer he felt was too good to turn down, even if it meant leaving the bustling scene in the culture-laden center of the country for the relative backwater of the Negev. Michaeli jumped at the chance to share his accrued experience and began learning with budding thespians in Beersheba. “They opened a new school of acting there, called Goodman,” he explains.

He may have been enthused by the job offer but it took a while before he made the life-changing decision to go whole southern hog. Things start to develop in Beersheba, and a practical offshoot of the Goodman venture was raised.

“There was talk of establishing a new theater company, so that the graduates of the acting school could have work. You know, students normally finish their studies and straightaway move to Tel Aviv, because they don’t have too many opportunities in other places,” Michaeli explains. He eventually stopped commuting to work from his home in Tel Aviv and became a local.

Initially, it was very much a matter of harnessing the frontier spirit and getting out there and doing their theatrical thing, proffering the fruits of their education to anyone and everyone, wherever. “We started performing in all sorts of places – vacant yards, underground parking lots,” Michaeli recalls. That improvisatory set of venue circumstances lasted for a while before the local municipality came to the rescue. “They gave us financial support, with the wonderful mayor, Ruvik Danilovich, who makes a point of enriching the arts and culture scene here,” Michaeli happily notes. “Without him we couldn’t have got our company going.”
And so the Ayit (Eagle) Theater came to be. “We have a small auditorium in the Old City of Beersheba. We perform there and host around 100 productions of the country’s best fringe theater all year round. There are only around four fringe theaters recognized by the Culture Ministry. We are the only one in this region.”

The Old City also provides the geographic base of the Fringe Festival, which, much like its longer running sibling, the Acre Alternative Israeli Theater, which takes place annually on Sukkot, features an abundance of al fresco street theater and circus acts, along with the indoor shows dotted around the area. Some of the shows are free.

RETURNING TO the aforementioned Shakespearean stage- life equation, Habbek Otee Lanetzach, Patricio reflects some of the more challenging aspects of reality down South. The play tells the tale of a middle-aged couple of immigrants from Romania who have been living in Beersheba since they came to Israel. Their socioeconomic circumstances leave a lot to be desired, and things are not helped by the mother’s trauma due to the continuing missile attacks from Gaza. She seeks solace in the eponymous Argentinean soap opera, but sudden unwelcome faux pas by the couple’s errant son do nothing to improve the mood.

“The play was inspired by the writings of an iconic writer from South America called Roberto Alfredo Fontanarrosa,” Michaeli explains. Fontanarrosa was an Argentinean cartoonist, comic artist and writer who was something of a national treasure, and specialized in humorous works. The late South American writer suited Michaeli down to the ground, on several levels. “He lived in a city called Rosario, which is the periphery of Argentina.” A bit like Beersheba, I suggest. “Yes, you could say that,” Michaeli says, “even though it has a population of over a million.” Beersheba has around 200,000 residents. “Fontanarrosa wrote about ordinary life in the periphery. Sort of ‘little’ stories. That connected with our reality here. “

The Habbek Otee storyline follows a meandering route through a roller coaster of emotional developments, which appeal equally to the heart as to the funny bone. “There is humor in the play, including dark humor, but it is a very human and funny story,” the director notes. “The mother becomes totally addicted to the soap opera, and her grasp on reality becomes a little fuzzy. It is a very entertaining and funny play. I think it gives people some idea of life in Israel’s periphery, and the impossible security situation with which we have to contend on a daily basis and what that does to families, and life in general here. Clearly there will be much to laugh at, but also plenty to ponder. “There are lots of jokes in the play and we poke fun at all sorts of things,” Michaeli adds.

The long-term aim, the writer-director points out, is not just to get bums on seats and entertain, he wants people to appreciate the theatrical sentiments coming out of Beersheba. “This is part of efforts to create an original local voice in theater, which is strongly connected to the place we live in, and to present the special character of this region and local life. Reality here is really different and problematic.”

After nine years at the helm, Michaeli can reflect on the trials but also the successes of the festival since its inception. He says he is still looking to attract culture consumers from further afield, including Tel Aviv, but happily notes that his baby has grown and has gained international approval.

In addition to collaborations with local embassies and troupes from all over the world, “Two years ago the festival was granted the EFFE label.” That refers to the Europe for Festivals, Festivals for Europe organization that confers its prestigious stamp of approval on arts festivals – taking in music, theater, streets arts, dance and literature in 45 countries in and in the environs of Europe. That’s not bad going for the Beersheba-based theatrical venture.

The offshore slots at the festival including a dramatic offering from Poland called The History of Ugliness; a fun all-the-family musical circus act from Italy called Clown in Liberta; and an eye-catching illuminating Pretty Ugly-The LEDies offering from Austria.

On the homespun side, the Jaffa Theater Company will bring its Gina Papa production; Ensemble Can will perform its Ashkenazi is a Mizrahi Name drama; and the Orna Porat Children’s Theater’s rendition of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves should bring in kids and parents alike.

For tickets and more information, call 08-646-6657 or visit

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