Milking it for laughs

The three members of the cast of "Para Shehuta" show keep doing their best to test the waters of acceptable social mores.

Para Shehuta (photo credit: Maoz Visstoch)
Para Shehuta
(photo credit: Maoz Visstoch)
Are Inbal Lori, Yair Lehman and Eli Haviv boldly going where no Israeli has gone before? Or are there simply fewer uncharted places to go these days? It is, indeed, a moot point. Only last week, the artistic director of a dance festival that features religious men and women on stage was saying that we are now deep into the postmodern world and – more importantly – postmodern Israel, where anything goes and taboos have passed their sell-by dates.
Then again, the aforementioned three members of the cast of the Para Shehuta (Slaughtered Cow) satirical show keep doing their best to test the waters of acceptable social mores.
“But we don’t do anything out of spite,” Haviv is quick point out. “We do tread in and around red lines but we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.”
The said Incubator Project production has been running in Jerusalem for over two-and-a-half years. It started out based at Beit Avi Chai and is now in full fun flow at Beit Mazia in Nahlaot.
Haviv’s diplomacy notwithstanding, Lori says that the initial idea, which she conceived together with Lehman, was to put a few noses out of joint, while generating some positive enlightenment.
“The idea was to reference the lesser known areas of Judaism,” she explains, “to address religion in a subversive and challenging way while also enjoying Judaism and its great riches, from a cultural point of view.”
During its highly successful run thus far, Para Shehuta has touched on a wide range of subject matter, but always through the filter of Judaism and religion. A couple of weeks ago, for example, the sketches included a farcical, Python-esque panel sequence featuring a rabbi, a priest and an imam in which the MC presented them with a nonsensical litany of topics.
There was also plenty of interplay between the actors and the audience. That is an element that 32-year-old Haviv is keen to develop.
“You know theater competes with the cinema for the public’s attention, but there’s not much use in just doing something on the stage that the cinema or TV also do, and do far better, on the screen. One way to give people added value is to actively engage them in the show.”
That was certainly evident in the recent performance of Para Shehuta, but it was also done in the best of taste.
Halfway through the show, Lehman developed some delicate repartee with a woman in the audience called Veronica. There were none of the cheap personal barbs characteristic of inferior quality stand-up routines, in which some poor unfortunate becomes the butt of the performer’s jokes.
Both Haviv and Lehman come from Orthodox families, but have gravitated to a secular lifestyle, while Lori hails from a non-observant but traditionally-oriented home. Haviv says that the confluence of the three of them, with their different religious baggage, continues to be an important element in the show’s constant evolution.
“Inbal knew almost nothing about religion, and Yair and I would enlighten her here and there,” he says.
Lori’s roots, from the other side of the religious tracks, also helped the show creators to strike a healthy balance in the material they dished up for the show.
“She is a sounding board for us,” explains Haviv.
“There is stuff that Yair and I know, because of our religious upbringing, but we didn’t want to stray into areas that were too esoteric. Most of our audiences are secular and we didn’t want to get into situations in which they didn’t find the sketches funny because they couldn’t reference the source material.”
Haviv learned that the hard way.
“I once did a stand-up show in Uruguay, in Spanish, in which I made fun of their lowlifes, but no one laughed.
My mistake was to ridicule Israeli characters in Spanish, but I couldn’t bridge the cultural gap. It simply didn’t work.”
There was a homey feeling to the show in Beit Mazia, and quite a few people in the audience had clearly seen Para Shehuta before.
“Yes, that’s great. We like that,” notes Haviv. “We also like it when people respond to the things we do on the stage without us prompting them. That also gives us things to feed off.”
Weren’t the actors at all apprehensive about satirizing aspects of religious life, particularly in Jerusalem? “It’s great fun to do this in Jerusalem,” says Lori, who has strong views on what she sees as religious encroachment on our way of life. “I don’t feel brave, but I feel it is something very important to do, to take the stage in a Jerusalem which is becoming increasingly Orthodox and to act, sing, laugh and challenge people, to give my all – professionally, emotionally and personally – and to counter attempts to push women, their voice and their body, into the recesses of life in the name of God. I feel we need to fight against the brainwashing, the censorship, and against scaring women and putting them down, and to confining their role in cultural life of this city.”
While some of the material presented in Para Shehuta’s evolving scripts can be a bit on the rough and ready side, the groundwork for the show was in place well before Lehman, Lori and later Haviv put pen to paper.
“Para Shehuta ran at Beit Avi Chai for two-and-a-half years, and we got great support from the people there,” notes Haviv. “Kalabat Shabbat [media personality Jackie Levy’s offbeat look at the weekly Torah portion] had already been running for quite some time, and we were the sort of younger, evil spinoff. And Yair had been in Kalabat Shabbat, so the first audiences had some idea of what to expect from us.”
Haviv and his siblings in satirical arms are also keen to keep themselves and their audiences on their toes, and constantly change the material they present.
“No two shows are exactly the same,” says Haviv, “which is also why people keep on coming to see us. We have done stuff on the environment, sex, politics and children and lots of other things.”
There is also a welcome learning curve to be negotiated.
“Whenever we want to address a new topic we consult an expert in the field, and study it really well, so we know what we are on about before we dish it up to the public.”
“Working on each show can be nightmarish,” adds Lori. “It is a lot of work and we have to be very precise. We don’t skirt over anything and we are painstaking about our acting and the texts we deliver.”
All that hard work is not lost on the customers, but the overriding sense one gets from Para Shehuta is one of fun, on the stage and in the audience. • For more information about Para Shehuta: 654-3004