There's nothing like a dame

Lea Koenig will receive due honor at Holon's International Women's Festival.

Lea Koeing 88 298 (photo credit: )
Lea Koeing 88 298
(photo credit: )
'We're a young theater," says Lea Koenig, "not heir to a long tradition. What we do best and what's going to build us is the material that comes from our own surroundings, and that's Israeli plays." She should know. Koenig has graced our stage ever since she immigrated from Romania in 1961. A self-styled character actress, she has played the gamut from Anne Frank to the cranky nonagenarian A in Albee's "Three Tall Women," now in its eighth year at the Habimah National Theater, Koenig's professional home from the beginning. She has a shelf-full of awards and prizes, including the Israel Prize (1987), the Rosenblum Prize (1997), the Israel Theater Life Achievment Prize (2001), and an honorary company membership from the Bucharest National Theater (2005). To these she can add the honor of being named "the first lady of the Israeli Theater," a tribute being bestowed upon her by her colleagues on March 6 at the opening of the Holon International Women's Festival. Among those honoring her will be Miriam Zohar, Gila Almagor, Rivka Gur, Ilan Dar, Gai Zuaretz and many more. Prizes, accolades and awards are lovely, Koenig acknowledges. They signify success, recognition and are exciting, but what moves her the most "is when somebody stops me on the street and says "I remember you in X" The audience's memory; that's what nourishes an actor." Currently she's as busy as she's ever been. She plays Lucille in Ivan Menchell's "The Cemetery Club" that's been a monster hit since it opened in the fall. In the one-woman "Oscar and Aunt Rosa" she plays both Rosa and the terminally ill child, Oscar. Then there's Sarah Bernhardt, the two-hander she plays with Shlomo Bar-Shavit, another marvelous Habimah veteran, not to mention the ongoing "Butterflies Are Free" and her Yiddish-language show "Stars Without a Sky". Koenig speaks Russian, German, Polish, and Romanian, but Yiddish was the language that nurtured her childhood and adolescence. She was an only child, born in Poland to Yiddish theater actor parents, both well-known. When the Nazi juggernaut rolled into Poland at the start of World War II, the family fled to Romania and in 1941 from there to the Uzbekistan region in the then USSR. "My parents traveled from city to city performing for two year, and I went with them," Koenig recalls. "Then mother decided I needed an education, so we settled in Tashkent for the rest of the war." The family returned to Romania at the end of the war and by the time she was 17 Koenig was already a company member at the National Theater of Bucharest. Then, at 20 she was cast as 13 year old Anne in The Diary of Anne Frank. "That was the role that really did it for me, physically and emotionally," she recalls, her eyes bright with memory. It was 1957 and there was a countrywide theater festival devoted to young talent. Koenig won first prize at that festival for her portrayal of Anne. The play had made a huge impression on the audience and for her "the part opened horizons. The world got clearer and more real. And through Anne I understood more about growing up." When she was 17 Koenig also met actor Zvi Stolper, the man who became first her mentor, then her husband. When the couple came in '61 it was together with the large Romanian immigration of those years that grabbed a rare opportunity to escape Ceaucescu's oppressive regime. Of course Habimah grabbed her at once, and her first part was in Brecht's Puntila and His Man in Hebrew. It wasn't the line that worried Koenig, she understood those, barely. It "what would I do if I blanked, or made a mistake. I'd only just begun to learn Hebrew. Thank goodness it didn't happen." Theater in Israel today is different than the theater of 40 years ago. The collective has gone, tenure has gone, and although the theater is more open, which is good, the "sense of togetherness and belonging has gone too," Koenig observes. The worst change is that "the younger generation isn't willing to pay its dues, to play small roles in one production and leads or supporting roles in others. They all want to be stars. If someone succeeds today, they think they have it made for life, and they don't, because it doesn't work that way. You have to have to approach this profession with a healthy dose of humility." Koenig lost her husband nine years ago. Despite his absence, she has remade her life with determination and humor. Laughter is as essential as breath she says. Retirement is not an option. "I think I've always done the best I can," she says, happily spooning up the last of the whipped cream on her hot chocolate, "and people seem to like it. So I'll go right on doing it."