If two heads are better than one, then four heads must be far superior when they come together on one stage. Wearing full-face masks throughout their performance, the actors in Hotel Paradiso, a dramatic black comedy set in the lobby of a German mountain resort, transform into their scripted personas as if they have literally taken on a second skin.

The wordless play – centered on an elderly innkeeper whose children are warring over future ownership of the hotel, whose chef cooks up somewhat unconventional meals and whose maid stumbles one day across a corpse – sets out to invoke the imagination of its audience.

“A mask can be so alive, can give me such strong emotions and can touch me so directly,” says play director and co-author Michael Vogel, who has been creating mask theater for almost 20 years. “[The mask is] not only a tool – it can really be a full character. I can believe, and I can carry a story with a mask.”

In order to successfully convey emotion through such a rigid form, the performers of the Berlin-based Familie Flöz theater company – the group behind the production – must be masterful mimes, as the mask precludes speech. “The body has to express all the feelings, all the moments you are in, and transform them from the inside [out],” says Vogel, who is constantly training new company members in this unique, wordless theater language. “You really have to be very conscious about every moment. You have to sense every moment in a big form. Also you don’t see each other so much because you have only these little holes and have a very small focus, which you must really trust to orient yourself.”

There is no room for improvisation on stage, adds Vogel. Though, paradoxically, this is how Hotel Paradiso – along with all of the Familie Flöz’s creations – came to fruition: through improvisation, inventiveness and the joint ideas of its actors.

Alongside Vogel, who is also the artistic director of Familie Flöz, the team of four performers – who will present Hotel Paradiso in Jerusalem and Holon next week as part of the Israel Festival – are the writers and creators of the play. “We collect in the beginning a lot of material and sure, we improve it, we try it, we make a lot of theater out of one theme… and then we put it together and try to find some story lines and epic moments,” says Vogel, describing the teamwork that has gone into their upcoming production.

Only after the content has been roughly decided upon do the mask builders begin to craft the masks that will come to life onstage. “After the masks are in the works, everything changes because the masks sometimes start to tell completely different stories than we imagined before,” says Vogel. The mask is not always designed as originally envisioned, and the team either decides to work with it as an entirely different character or sends it back to be remodeled.

The success of the performance also hinges on the audience’s level of involvement, says Vogel. “It’s a theater of imagination, so if the public is open to imagine, the masks are wonderful. But if they want to consume or they are tired, this changes the performance.”

The magic happens when the viewers really believe that the masks are living characters and not just actors who put on a disguise. “A lot of times the masks make it more fun – it’s much more fun for us and also for the public,” says Vogel. “For me, the question is always: Why are other theater works not done with masks more often?”

Hotel Paradiso makes its Israeli debut on June 8 at The Jerusalem Theater. For more information: www.israel-festival.org.il
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