Sara Halevi – to paraphrase a noted line from the film The Blues Brothers – is on a mission. The founder and creative director of the small Way Off Productions theater company doesn’t just want to entertain people.

“This is socially relevant theater,” she explains when we meet at the company’s performance space in Talpiot. “I just want to have a conversation, and that is why I do this.”

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Way Off Productions is currently putting on Neil LaBute’s award-winning play Fat Pig. It is a thought-provoking, social mores-challenging piece about a thirty-something professional city dweller named Tom, who falls for an outsized woman (Helen). Tom’s friend Carter and all Tom’s circle of friends and acquaintances are at a loss to explain why he should go for someone who does not fit the conventional ideal of an attractive woman.

Halevi says the theme of the play is an important topic, which needs to be out there. “This is an issue all over the world, especially for teenagers – the idea of self-image and what the perfect acceptable image is, in the eyes of the world.”

Halevi should know. When she’s not in her directorial chair, the mother of four works as a psychologist, often treating teenagers with self-image problems.

It is also an issue that Halevi herself has grappled with from an early age. “I am one of five siblings, and my sisters were all ballerinas and thin. I was always on the heavy side, and I knew, deep down, that being larger was perfectly all right. I think if you can accept that, it’s okay.”

It is an approach the director is looking to convey through the current production. “I want to open up a conversation and give everyone a place to open their minds and talk about something that is topical and important and relevant to everyone. The problem, I feel, is the silence.”

That silence, says Halevi, should be shattered by whatever means it takes. “I am setting out to be provocative and to tread on toes and to say, ‘Oh, is that uncomfortable for you? Great, let’s have a conversation about it.’ Shoot first and ask questions later. That’s my way.”

Halevi is aware that her in-your-face approach may ruffle a few feathers. “I have to say that Jerusalem audiences can be conservative. I know I am treading a fine line here, but I want to challenge people, not to alienate them.”

Fat Pig has a PG-13 rating for language and adult content, and there is a love scene and several expletives in the script, including the F word.

“I was concerned that people might be offended by the swear words we use,” she says, “but they seem to relate to them in context, and they’re fine with it,” she says.

Size notwithstanding, the diminutive Way Off Productions is a professional outfit. Actors Lev Kerzhner, who plays Carter in Fat Pig and gained TV exposure last year on the soap opera 15 Minutes; David Hilfstein (Tom); Yardena Rosner (Helen); and Nikki Simon (Jeannie) all get paid for their onstage endeavor, and they and Halevi take their work very seriously.

“I have the greatest respect for community theater and what the different community theater groups around here are doing, but that’s not really what I want to do,” declares the director. “I want to do something more professional, and I feel I have achieved that.”

Still, there is the Jerusalem conundrum to be addressed. Even though Halevi says Fat Pig audiences to date have responded well to the show, there is still some way to go to get Jerusalemites to let their hair down.

“This sort of show may, for instance, be easier to put over in Tel Aviv. We would really like to become a repertory company and take our shows all over the country, to places like Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beersheba.”

Mind you, the latter may not be an ideal place to perform challenging material with a seemingly offensive title. “We are currently in negotiations with Beersheba Theater to take Fat Pig there, and there were all these emails going to and fro about it, and one woman who heard about it said: ‘Fat Pig? Who would go to a play called that in Israel?’ She was completely serious, and I was so taken aback by that. I thought that in this age of Google, it would have taken her 10 seconds to discover that it is, in fact, an award-winning play by an exceptional playwright about body image.”

But there have been good audience responses to the show, which began its current run in Jerusalem on November 2 and will end on November 30.

The Way Off Productions performance space occupies a large room at the handsomely appointed Merkaz Edna Mind and Body Center on the corner of Pierre Koenig and Poalei Tzedek streets in Talpiot. The show is performed on a modular stage, which previously saw service in the company’s previous Rent show, with black curtains covering the walls and mirrors suspended on the back wall.

“The black curtains are a sort of black box theater element, and the mirrors were my idea,” explains Halevi.

“The mirrors give another layer of conversation about how people view themselves. Also it brings the audience in more. When an actor comes up to the mirror and looks at his rear end, the audience feels something. They sort of think: ‘oh, how does mine look?’”

Although the subject matter may appear to be serious, there is also plenty of humor in Fat Pig. “These two [Kerzhner and Hilfstein] have incredible stage chemistry,” says the director about the male performers who have joined us on the stage. “Anything they do is funny. They get up there and start improvising. They always know where to take the scene; it’s really inspiring.”

“And it’s never the same show,” points out Hilfstein. “With TV or film work, what you get in the end is generally bits and pieces from different takes stuck together. But with live work, you get opportunities to create and recreate and do things a little differently. That keeps us, the actors, and the production fresh.”

Fat Pig also has some musical embellishments, which is where Kerzhner’s musical expertise came in useful. Besides his acting work, Kerzhner studied opera in London and is putting together a rock band. “The music we use in the show is mostly modern and represents the emotions of the characters,” he explains. “There’s U2’s ‘Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” there’s Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman No Cry,’ Miles Davis’s ‘Blue in Green’ and, of course, Jay Z’s ’99 Problems,’ which is essentially my theme song.”

Performing any art form in any language but Hebrew is naturally going to reduce the prospective audience. But then again, in recent years increasing numbers of Israeli pop and rock artists have begun to perform and record in English and get a decent amount of airplay on radio stations like 88 FM and Galgalatz. Halevi would like English-language theater and, of course, Way Off Productions shows to access a wider market sector.

“I don’t see any reason why Israelis who know English well shouldn’t come to our shows. That may be some time off, but we want to get the word out there,” she says.

Fat Pig will run until the end of November, with performances at Merkaz Edna on November 15, 16, 22, 23, 28 , 29 and 30. To order tickets: 054-688-0281 or wayoffproductions@gmail.com
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