A Spanish tragedy turns into a Herzliya Ensemble victory

"Even today, in Israel, the guiding principle is that you have to bring a child to the world. And if you don't, you mean nothing."

Theater Review 88 (photo credit: )
Theater Review 88
(photo credit: )
Spanish playwright and poet Federico García Lorca's tragedy Yerma is less a feminist tale and more a commentary on restrictive social limitations. That's at least how Ofira Henig, the new artistic director of the Herzliya Ensemble, sees the play. When the curtain rises on Yerma on July 13-15 at the Weill Auditorium in Kfar Shmaryahu, it will mark Henig's directorial debut with the Herzliya Ensemble. "When I read the play in my 20s I saw Yerma as a feminist, who fights for her way," she told The Jerusalem Post. "Now I feel Yerma is a woman who goes to the extreme with her obsession. There are so many opportunities for her to continue with her life but she insists on being a mother of her own child. The moment she can't do it, she goes crazy." Though the play was written 70 years ago, Henig said that its significance is still relevant today. The second entry in García Lorca's trilogy of rural tragedies, Yerma (which means 'barren' in Spanish) tells the story of a childless woman living in rural Spain and her desperate desire for motherhood. Yerma is a woman whose needs and desires are stifled by her society, and the play explores the pain of a woman's life under a conservative social system. "Even today, in Israel, the guiding principle is that you have to bring a child to the world. And if you don't, you mean nothing," Henig says. Because Garcia Lorca's language is famously dense with metaphor and imagery, Henig turned to Shimon Bouzaglo for the Hebrew translation. "He's a poet and I think only a poet can really translate Lorca. I don't think anything is lost in translation," said Henig, who noted that the ensemble is hoping to add English surtitles to the show both for the local audience and for future international productions. Asked what drew her to a play that was written in the 1930s, Henig quickly responded, "It's a fantastic play. It's a great feeling for a director to work with a classic text. You don't have to solve the play, you have a platform. You just have to direct." And while Yerma is a very woman-focused play, Henig made the unusual move of casting an almost all male troupe. "I always like to remind the audience that we're doing theater. We're not imitating life and we're not just telling a story. Theater is about making the spectator think," she said, explaining her choice. Moreover, after re-reading the play, Henig felt that if she had cast women in the roles they would have likely fallen into prescribed ones. "The theater is still very conservative in casting," she said. "If I had to cast women in the feminine roles I'd have to fall into the clichés. When the men do it, they cannot portray a cliché. It keeps it original." Originality is what Henig is all about. She took over the artistic director spot last August and has spent the last year learning about her new theatrical environment. Previously, Henig spent 12 years in Jerusalem where she served as artistic director for the Khan Theater, artistic director of the Israel Festival Jerusalem (2002-2004), and director of the Lab. "Leaving Jerusalem was difficult, but I finished my work there and I felt I had to move on. The cultural space I need today is not in Jerusalem. I need something more international and multi-cultural," said the new Tel Aviv resident. Whereas much of local theater today is what Henig calls "commercial and pop-culture theater," she said that the Herzliya Ensemble prides itself on "serving as an innovative company that is bringing the art of performance back to the stage. Israeli theater is in a very difficult time now. People count success according to the number of performances and not the quality of the theater. I'm sure we're close to a catastrophe." The Herzliya Ensemble was founded seven years ago by some of the leading figures of local theater, including Hanna Maron, Joshua Sobol, Leora Riblin, and Gedalia Besser. In September, the company will finally raise the curtain on its own home in the heart of Herzliya. "The Herzliya Ensemble is still not present. It's very difficult to judge a theater company that doesn't have a place of its own. It will be a quality theater ensemble. Ask me the question next year [about ranking the company against other local troupes]," said Henig. In addition to her work on Yerma, Henig is working with other Ensemble staff on launching a new initiative that will give young directors a stage. The project is scheduled to get off the ground in 2009. "I'm trying to take a moral role and give the new generation of directors the stage I got as a young director," she said. "There are a lot of very talented people and they need a stage."