Israeli-American actress Iris Bahr is taking her one-woman play 'Dai' back to the Holy Land in English.

Iris Bahr 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Iris Bahr 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It isn't hard to imagine how, in less skillful hands, Iris Bahr's one-woman show could have been a dramatic and even moral flop: repetitive, morbid and emotionally manipulative. But as theatergoers and critics on both sides of the Atlantic have demonstrated via prizes, praise and ticket sales, the show, called Dai, is none of the above, instead offering a poignant, imaginative and frequently even humorous look at the Israeli side of its conflict with the Palestinians. Set in a Tel Aviv café in the minutes before a suicide bomber's blast, the densely packed show - just over an hour in length - mixes in 11 vividly told stories, shared by Israelis and foreigners with little in common but their fate in the impending carnage. The show, which will have its Israeli premiere later this month at Tel Aviv's Cameri Theater, has already achieved small-scale but notable success in New York and in Britain, where Bahr received a 2007 UK Stage Award nomination. After extending its debut outing at New York's Culture Project in 2007, Dai again prolonged its theatrical life earlier this year, with Bahr performing as many as eight off-Broadway shows a week during a four-month run at the city's intimate 47th Street Theatre. For a play whose audience finds its seats to the strains of Israeli music group Shotei Hanevua, the show attracted an impressive amount of attention from the mainstream media, including a lengthy profile of Bahr by The Associated Press and write-ups in Variety and The New Yorker. Since ending her show's off-Broadway run in early March, Bahr has performed Dai in Venice's Jewish Ghetto and signed a deal to adapt it as a movie. "I'd been wanting to do something like this for a long time," says Bahr. "It was something that had been percolating." Her patience and thoughtfulness are evident in each of the play's 11 characters, who range from a non-Jewish Russian prostitute to a patriotic kibbutznik proud of his sons' accomplishments in the IDF. Opening with a British TV reporter preparing for a round of man-on-the-street-style interviews, the show moves absorbingly along, its momentum slamming to a stop at the end of each vignette as a recorded explosion tears through the auditorium. As the audience watches over the next 15 or 20 seconds, Bahr transforms herself into her next character, pulling off an item of clothing or putting on a new accent to differentiate between the roles. Despite its Israeli characters and Hebrew title (which means "enough"), Bahr will continue to perform Dai in English, even in Tel Aviv, explaining that the show "is in part about how Israelis portray themselves to a foreign journalist and to the world." It's a fitting choice for both the playwright and her characters, all of whom navigate somewhat uneasily between different languages and parts of the world. That kind of internal division is a constant theme for Bahr, an American-born daughter of Bulgarian immigrants to Israel, who herself moved to the Tel Aviv area in her teens. Though she says she "felt more Israeli than American in high school," she was soon back to feeling unsure, serving in the IDF and traveling in Asia before starting a college degree in psychology, well past the age of her fellow students, at Brown University. She's spent much of the intervening period moving back and forth within the US, taking acting classes and landing small parts in TV shows including Friends and The King of Queens. She enjoyed a recurring role during the fifth season of HBO comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm. But like many performers struggling for work in the hyper-competitive acting world, Bahr's juiciest roles are the ones she's written herself - and like Eddie Murphy or Woody Allen, she's written herself many of them. In addition to the 11 parts she plays in Dai, a 2005 film called The Unchosen Ones featured the actress playing a separate multitude of characters, though principally a Jewish-American woman who's traveled to Israel to find a husband. The 17-minute comedy screened in the Short Film Corner at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, and followed an earlier stage project called Planet America, a one-woman piece involving characters of Russian, Irish and Hispanic descent. THE FIGURES in Dai come together from a similarly diverse set of backgrounds, among them a gay German furniture designer who's followed an ex-lover to Israel and an American actress who believes she's found star-making material in the chaos of the Middle East. A middle-aged woman named Alma mostly eschews her Israeli upbringing, explaining that she's grudgingly returned to Tel Aviv for a family visit, but straining to demonstrate that she transcended Israel long ago with her move to New York. (Her kids' names, she reports to much laughter, are Cassidy and Dylan.) It's a testament to Dai's acting and script - that is to say, to Bahr - that the characters are uniformly believable and engaging, with the playwright somehow erasing her own background and appearance as she quickly shifts among the various roles. Though the majority of her off-Broadway audiences could never have known it - the bulk were neither Israeli nor Jewish - Dai's Israeli characters each resemble a certain archetype, yet still somehow manage never to devolve into stereotypes. "Any person who exists can become a cliché," Bahr says, "but I think that if you give a person depth and texture and a story, you've got a window into her soul. I try to give the characters a soul - it's not sketch comedy or working on a treatment." That approach pays dividends even with the characters carrying the greatest potential to be unsympathetic, be they the bitter German designer, the self-absorbed American actress or the religious settler with an aggressively delivered view of the conflict. Though Bahr says Israeli tourists and expats were a regular feature of her shows in New York, theatergoers at the performance I attended understood the show - and in many cases were visibly moved by it - even when their comments suggested that they carried no personal connection to Israel. And not because they've been exposed to propaganda, Bahr stresses. "I wanted people to experience the stories but not feel that they're being manipulated," she says. "I think I succeeded in that." Indeed, the final character to take the stage in Dai isn't Israeli at all, but a Palestinian professor who recounts her passage through multiple checkpoints to make it to Tel Aviv. The character doesn't voice the type of hostility to Israel many viewers might expect, but then again, neither do the Israelis - with the exception of the settler - have anything too negative to say about the Palestinians. Instead, the characters focus on explaining themselves and how they arrived in this Tel Aviv café, offering brief but incisive glimpses of their humanity and effectively escalating the horror still to come. "Which of the characters did you connect with the most?" another ticket holder asked me after the performance, and perhaps the best reflection on Dai is that neither of us could name just one figure. (Among my favorites: Revivit, a Tel Aviv rave enthusiast so touchingly sincere you want to believe her theory that peace could be achieved if everyone just took some Ecstasy and went dancing on the beach.) Dai's mix of charm and honesty has won over audiences even in places not known for their great enthusiasm for Israel, among them the UN, where Bahr was invited to perform for 100 delegates and staffers by Israeli Ambassador Dan Gillerman. She performed nearly every day last August at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival - which made news the previous year for its anti-Israel atmosphere - and says the run went off without a hitch. "I didn't know what to expect," she says. "There's strong anti-Israel sentiment in the UK at all strata of society, but the show is a theatrical experience - that's my main objective. "I gauge by the humor how engaged people are, and the Edinburgh response was overwhelmingly positive and engaged." She earned herself an equally unlikely fan base last year with another project - a rather indelicately titled memoir called Dork Whore that's been translated into German, Italian and Portuguese. Funny and chatty but sprinkled every dozen pages with a moment of insight, the book bears the (again, rather indelicate) subtitle "My Travels Through Asia as a Twenty-Year-Old Pseudo-Virgin," and recounts Bahr's encounters with sex, drugs and intestinal parasites during her post-IDF tour of Asia. (The "pseudo" element of the title is too technically involved to include an explanation in a family newspaper.) The memoir became a surprise hit in Germany, where Bahr gave readings across the country last year to sustain its commercial momentum. "It was great," she says of the tour, which followed a high-school visit to Germany as part of an Israeli student delegation. "The book really resonated," she says, and not because she's Israeli. Readers "responded to the backpacker aspect of it - the sex and traveling combination." Which, given Israel's disproportionate presence on the global backpacker circuit, begs an obvious question: Why hasn't it been translated into Hebrew? "I'd love to be translated into Hebrew," Bahr says. "I think [the book] could be a huge hit in Israel." (Book publishers take note: It could.) For now, however, her focus is on Dai and her upcoming shows at the Cameri, as well as on performances being planned in the US through the start of next year. The play continues to earn recognition months after the end of Bahr's run off-Broadway. The show won her a Lucille Lortel Award in New York last month for Outstanding Solo Show, putting Bahr among a rarefied list of 2008 winners including New Yorker staff writer George Packer and Oscar and Golden Globe nominee Mare Winningham. Though she's by now more than familiar with playing her many characters, she's looking forward to each additional chance to play them again. "I always try to do something new - not textually," but through other aspects of her performances, she says. "It's very emotionally draining - I put my soul out there on the stage. "But," she continues, "I'm so happy to get to keep doing it."