Gesher 'bridges' a gap

Yevgeny Terletzky trains to exacting standards to keep Russian theater culture thriving in Israel.

gesher theater 88 298 (photo credit: )
gesher theater 88 298
(photo credit: )
In May, the 15-year-old Gesher Theater company received an honorary doctorate from Bar Ilan University. The accolade was bestowed for its "compelling Israeli and world theater productions and for functioning as a bridge between the theater culture of the Former Soviet Union and the local theater world." The honor has delighted everybody, not least Gesher actor Yevgeny Terletzky who arrived with the core company in 1991 and played the First Tragedian in its inaugural Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. "Gesher is built on and derives from the Russian [theater] tradition that has flourished for 200 years; we are a part of that and bring it to the Israeli audience," he says. "Some productions are better than others, but we maintain a standard below which we can't allow ourselves to drop. We do a play because we think it has something to say, and not just for the play itself." The theater is now broadly accepted, he says, nonetheless "we still haven't become a totally integral part of the theatrical landscape. We are always a step ahead, and that's where we belong." Like the rest of the company, Terletzky delivers his lines in a Hebrew that has grown steadily more intelligible over the years. And whereas in the early years most of the performances were in Russian, today most of them are in Hebrew with Russian subtitles. Today several company members are young Israeli actors, whom Gesher founder and artistic director Yevgeny Arye trains to his exacting standards. Terletzky welcomes their presence saying that "we're now beginning to understand one another better on stage," and muses that while Israeli actors manage to convey the big emotions just fine, local acting schools don't seem to teach them the essential nuts and bolts of the craft. "An actor needs to know his tools, just like a plumber," he says. Terletzky learned his nuts and bolts on the job. He started as a stagehand in his native Kharkov, moved to a local puppet theater and when his close friend Victor Schreimann was asked to start a puppet theater somewhere in the Ural mountains, Terletzky went along and for 19 years the two ran it. He wrote plays and songs (he still does), acted, and translated. He was born in 1947, and while as an adult "I fought the Soviet system through my plays," as a child he was a good and patriotic little Soviet boy who contracted tuberculosis in those tough years after World War II, and was sent to a special sanatorium to recuperate. The children slept outside in sleeping bags even though the temperature in the winter was -20C, a common treatment at the time. The balcony where they slept and rested overlooked the road to the cemetery. Almost daily funeral processions passed to the mournful strains of Chopin's funeral march. "One day," Terletzky relates, "a troop of cavalry came riding by and there was a big military band, then from the cemetery we heard a volley of gunshots. Who was being buried there we asked, and were told that it was one of Kharkov's most famous actors. I thought how great it was to be an actor if you got such a funeral," and his grey-blue eyes twinkle under a thatch of graying hair. In the theater Terletzky is known for his quick wit and gift of the gab. He lives in Jerusalem because that was where a "very Zionist" cousin had settled two or three years before. He arrived with his wife and three kids and now there are four grandchildren. Terletzky himself is not a Zionist. He came because Yevgeny Arye invited him to join the company, and integration was very difficult. The fluent Hebrew he speaks on stage isn't mirrored in life because "while I understand nearly everything, I can't say in Hebrew all I want to say, so I prefer Russian." A consummate character actor, Terletzky welcomes roles that challenge him, such as Holocaust survivor Anschel Wasserman in Momik (2005) and his current role of Firs in The Cherry Orchard that opened June 22. Firs is the old family servitor "for whom service is an avocation, not a job," Terletzky says. It's the kind of dedication all the Gesher actors seem to share. Director Yevgeny Arye keeps it fresh on stage The Gesher theater produces some three new productions a year while keeping older productions in the repertory as is customary in Russian theater. Director Yevgeny Arye chooses from the contemporary, classical and Russian canon, commissions plays from local authors, such as Yehoshua Sobol's Village (1996) or Eating (1999) by Ya'akov Shabtai, and adapts works with Jewish content such as Shosha (2003) and The Slave (2002) by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Momik (2005) from David Grossman's book See: under Love. The theater tours regularly to Europe and the US and most recently took Shosha to Poland. The company have won prizes in most categories in the annual Israel Theater Prize Awards (some 30 of them), and in addition to the recent award from Bar Ilan, Yevgeny Arye received an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University in 2002.