Encore’s newest play, written and directed by Robert Binder, takes a historic tale of high-stakes spy drama, love and bravery, set against the backdrop of the WWI-era Ottoman Empire, and adapts it to the stage for the first time. Intrepid will be at the Hirsch Theater in Beit Shmuel today and tomorrow for three performances, accompanied by a live orchestra. With an outstanding cast of Encore veterans and newcomers, Intrepid fulfills the goal of introducing new musical works based on Israeli and Jewish themes. Binder sat down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss adapting the story of the spy ring, putting it to music, and being drawn in by a most remarkable date palm.
Can you talk about the story behind ‘Intrepid’? It’s a tale of romance, intrigue and high drama. It has all the aspects of a great opera. We are producing it as a modern musical play based on historical facts. The story takes place during the First World War. There was a young group of Zionists in Zichron Ya’acov who were determined to help the British conquer Israel from the Ottoman Turks. So they organized a ring of spies around the country, reported on military installation, train schedules and troop movements.
They conveyed the information to the British, who were then stationed in Egypt.
At one point, they decided to use carrier pigeons. Unfortunately, one of them didn’t make it to Egypt. It stopped off at the home of a Turkish commander in Caesarea, where it was realized that there was a spy ring in the country.
They honed in on Zichron and particularly the home of the Aaronsohns. Sarah Aaronsohn, who had headed the ring for a couple of years, was then arrested, tortured, but refused to give any information. Finally, after four days, they were going to take her to Damascus. Realizing that she was going to be hanged, she asked permission to go home to wash and change her clothes for the journey. She went into the bathroom of her house and wrote a final letter, which she threw out the window for someone to find.
She then took a gun, which was hidden in the wall of the bathroom, and shot herself in the mouth. Unfortunately she did not die; she paralyzed her spine. She suffered for three or four days and finally died.
The other part of this important story is that Avshalom Feinberg, a young man from Hadera who was the brains behind the spy ring, grew frustrated with the lack of contact with the British. He decided to go himself through the Sinai to deliver information to the British agent. He never arrived, but his companion did. For decades it was rumored that his companion had killed him on the way out of jealousy because they were both in love with Sarah Aaronsohn.
In 1967, after the Six Day War, 50 years after these events, a Beduin came to the Israeli army in Sinai and asked, “Would you like to see the Jews’ graves?” He took them to a spot in the desert where a single palm tree was growing.
They dug under the tree and found the remains of Avshalom Feinberg. What actually happened was that when he left Zichron with the military information, he was carrying some dates in his pocket. He was attacked by a Beduin in the desert and thrown into a sand dune. The dates started to sprout and produced a tree that covered his grave. His remains were then moved to the Mount Herzl cemetery.
He had been engaged to the younger sister, Rivka Aaronsohn, who waited 50 years for him to come home to her.
Finding the palm tree is actually where our story begins in the play and then we flash back.
The story is amazing. How do you take something like this and adapt it for the stage? I worked on this for several years. I was constantly cutting it down to its bare essentials because there are many more characters and events and complications that we couldn’t possibly fit into a drama that the audience would follow.
We’ve stripped [it] to the bare essentials and I think you’ll find it highly effective. We have a cast of 20, five of whom are the main characters. I tried to stick to the facts, but still make it a dramatic entity, which was not easy. I’m the author and the director, and with a new work, there are always changes and adjustments.
Do you feel ready for opening night? I do. We have a superb cast. I think it’s the best that has ever appeared with Encore over the past 10 years. It’s been a pleasure to work with them. They’re extremely effective in both their singing and acting. I should especially mention the composer, Paul Salter, who did an incredible job translating this whole story into music that is both beautiful and moving. It’s authentic in the sense that it reflects both the period and contemporary music. I think what he’s done is a masterpiece.
Are you hoping to perform the show elsewhere? Yes, after the performances at the Hirsch Theater, we hope to take the show around the country. It’s such an important part of early Zionist history. Most Israeli children learn about it in school and I think that the whole country should know about it. This is certainly an easy and dramatic way to get the story across.
It’s certainly part of the fabric of Israeli consciousness.
Do you think that the Anglo community will go to see the show knowing the story, or curious about it? I think the play appeals equally to those who know the story and those who do not yet know it. We have simultaneous Hebrew translation being projected above the stage.
So it’s accessible to everybody.
What initially gave you the idea to take this story and adapt it for the stage? I think the drama of the palm tree really captured my imagination and made me look further. The more I dug into it and researched it, the more incredible the story became. A few years ago, I met the late Same Silvester, who was an entertainment lawyer living in Israel. He wanted to make a film out of the story. There was a meeting of minds, and after he passed away, the Silvester family commissioned us to write this show and dedicate it to his memory.
What message do you hope audiences will leave with after viewing the play? I hope that they feel enormous pride that the young people depicted in our show were so brave and committed to establishing a Jewish homeland in Israel. It’s truly inspiring. Without being flippant, I would say that all great operas have everybody dead at the end. All the principals in this story were killed in one way or another, but their legacy lives on and is an important part of our background.
Look at what they gave so that this country could be what it is today! For tickets and more info visit www.encore-etc.com.