Something to talk about

New English-language theater company BaMatMaBat aims to inspire dialogue on sensitive topics.

bamatmabat 88 224 (photo credit: )
bamatmabat 88 224
(photo credit: )
Fans of English-language theater in Israel are in for a bit of a surprise. BaMatMaBat, the newest theater company on the scene, aims to court controversy in the Jewish community, pushing the communal envelope to get people talking about sensitive topics. Its inaugural production, a festival of one-page plays called Teudat Zehut, to be performed cabaret-style on January 31 and February 2 in Jerusalem, is sure to raise eyebrows, according to company cofounders Talia Weiss and DeDe Jacobs Komisar. "We felt the need for a progressive, exploratory theater that would challenge the community to ask questions about its identity," said Komisar, who made aliya from Baltimore, Maryland, a year-and-a-half ago. The two young women decided to name their fledgling company BaMatMaBat, which, loosely translated, means a stage or platform for different viewpoints. Both agreed that Israel's English-speaking community needed a theatrical springboard to inspire dialogue among its members. With that ultimate goal in mind, Komisar and Weiss have created a production of short plays on hot topics such as homosexuality in the Orthodox community, the plight of agunot (women denied a religious divorce) and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, along with several other provocative points regarding contemporary Jewish life. FINDING WILLING playwrights proved to be no problem. They already had some scripts from a similar production in Baltimore which Komisar helped produce. In addition, Weiss placed ads online, in such forums as Janglo and Facebook, and received many responses from both new and seasoned playwrights. The directors didn't expect the word-of-mouth buzz that the call for plays eventually generated. The news even spread to Cyprus, and the directors received a play called Shiksa, based on the true experiences of a Cypriot woman in a romantic relationship with an Israeli man. The script was chosen for inclusion in the production as it fit the festival's criteria: artistic merit plus a certain dose of objectivity. According to Weiss, who moved to Israel from New York in April, the short plays don't send any particular message. "We're not saying whether homosexuality is right or wrong, whether the Torah allows it or not. We're just raising the issue." Although some of the selections tend toward humor - a young woman at a wedding is introduced to an eligible bachelor who turns out to be Jesus of Nazareth - others, such as a monologue performed by an aguna literally chained throughout the piece, are deadly serious. Still others revel in irony, while remaining thought-provoking. One of Weiss's favorite pieces depicts a group of American yeshiva high school graduates volunteering on a kibbutz. "The play asks: What values are stressed in yeshiva high schools? Is it 'Love your neighbor as yourself,' or is it just to bensch [say grace after meals]?" Rachel Beitsch, who performs in two of the plays and wrote a third play, Confession, respects the provocative nature of the production, but is pleased that the company is mindful of "some boundaries." As an Orthodox actress, Beitsch says she is "always walking the edge of what I am and am not willing to do." Like other religiously observant actors, she makes it a point to consider issues surrounding modesty of dress, speech and behavior onstage as well as off. THE DIRECTORS acknowledge that they amended some of the selections that featured racy material and language in response to requests made by some actors. "We really wanted our focus to be on content," said Komisar, adding that if audience members get angry as a result of the plays, she hopes it will be "because of the issue, because they don't want to deal with it," and not as result of objections to how it was presented. Jose Portuondo Wilson, an actor in two of the featured plays with a background in improvisational and sketch acting at the University of Chicago, adds that while some of the plays focus on issues of interest to the Orthodox community, all the selections touch on "more universal" topics. Komisar and Weiss aim to continue producing works that will speak to a broad range of audiences. Possible pieces for upcoming seasons include a play about sexual molestation by religious authority figures and one dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as a play about the experiences of Jewish women written in the style of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues. But for now, the group feels excited about their debut festival, happy to take their place among the growing ranks of English-language thespians in the Holy Land. And if they give people something to talk about - that's even better. Teudat Zehut will be performed on January 31 and February 2 at 8 p.m. at Jerusalem's Merkaz Hamagshimim. Tickets are NIS 40. To order, call 054-789-7144 or e-mail [email protected]