Stones with a story to tell

What would happen if the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising came back to life today...?

Stones (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On Monday, International Holocaust Day, the ORTO-Da theater company will put on its 500th performance of Stones at Tzavta in Tel Aviv (8:30 p.m.). It is a stirring play inspired by Polish Jewish sculptor Nathan Rapoport’s statuesque Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw, Poland.
When Stones co-director Yinon Tzafrir saw the monument on a working trip to Poland by the troupe in 2004, he was naturally moved but did not know that the thoughts and emotions it evoked would ultimately be translated into a theatrical medium.
“We didn’t know it was going to turn into a show,” says Tzafrir, who is also a member of the seven-person cast of Stones and shares directorial duties with Daniel Zaafrani. Eventually Tzafrir came to the realization that a vehicle of expression was required that could offer a new angle on the Holocaust.
“At the time, there were all kinds of people in Israel coming out with statements about the Holocaust. We tried to honor the memory of the Holocaust and to pose the question of what would happen if the people who took part in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising came back to life in our time. So we put together a 17-minute show based on that,” he explains.
Two years later, that compact version of Stones was performed at the Bat Yam Street Theater Festival. Tzafrir thought that was that but then started contemplating taking it further.
“We thought that a show based on that concept could make the Holocaust more accessible all round,” he says. “For some, the Holocaust is sacred. Some have all sorts of ceremonies and rituals connected to it, while others use it for political ends. At the time, the Holocaust was not entirely accessible for all.”
As he mulled the idea over, Tzafrir came to the conclusion that if he and ORTO-Da were going to do anything with Stones, they should approach it from a human, personal standpoint.
“We wanted to allow people their own perspective on the Holocaust, without the official, state-sanctioned version of commemorating it. The state has taken it over and doesn’t allow individuals to address it in their own way. We wanted to leave the subject alive, without state-imposed blinders. We wanted to make the subject live in terms of relating to it in an active way and thinking about it without the political narrative,” he says.
The eponymous masonry comes with some weighty Holocaust baggage.
“There are some large stones arranged around the monument in Warsaw,” Tzafrir explains. “Those stones came from Sweden. They were cut and ready to be used by the official sculptor of the Nazis to create a statue to mark the victory of the Third Reich in World War II.”
Rapoport and ORTO-Da have utilized those very stones – in a physical and an ephemerally artistic form – in a definitively antithetical way.
Stones follows the ORTO-Da credo of presenting thought-provoking topics through biting pantomime. It tells a story through the eyes of a sculpture that comes to life and conveys the sense of an ironic journey through the 20th century, a passage through spirits and memories.
There is an abundance of striking images in the show that address concepts of heroism and the victory of the spirit, all of which are imbued with a pervading sense of optimism that no matter how dark and desperate life appears to be, there is always a flickering light at the end of the tunnel. While the subject matter may sound morbid, even gruesome, there is plenty of humor in Stones and a decent dose of bittersweet emotion as well.
Although the actors keep mum throughout the play, there is a highly vociferous soundtrack. The latter is in keeping with the universal ethos behind the production and feeds off cinematic portrayals of the Holocaust over the years.
“The soundtrack has words and songs in all kinds of languages – Spanish, English, Hebrew and others, languages used in movies about the Holocaust,” Tzafrir says. “The movie material is all kitsch. We address that in this show, too. Kitsch, like politics, pushes you away from the Holocaust and turns it into something romantic, like Schindler’s List. We want to get away from that.”
With seven years and 500 performances, not to mention umpteen prizes from all over the world, Stones clearly strikes a resonant chord.
For tickets and more information: (03) 751-1136