Hands up anyone out there who knows how Murder on the Orient Express plays out. Yes, many of us have attended theatrical renditions of the Agatha Christie detective novel and have probably seen a couple of silver or small screen versions too.
But if that’s what you expect to catch when you go along to Haifa’s Beit Hagefen cultural center this week and next, you’re in for another thing. The current production by the Haifa English Theatre (HET) company is based on a 2018 adaptation by Ken Ludwig, for Broadway. “He did an excellent job,” says Washington DC-born veteran Haifa director Betsy Lewis Yisraeli, “even though he’s American,” she adds with a laugh.
Lewis Yisraeli believes the locals and, possibly, out-of-towners, who make it over to Beit Hagefen today or Saturday, or next week on Monday, Thursday or Saturday, will be royally entertained and duly engaged. “Many people have seen the movies, but this is very different. This stage version that Ken wrote is very different. So, there will be surprises and we will keep people guessing. This is a whodunit and we hope to keep them laughing.”
In this day and age, that would be a godsend. “Right now, we chose Murder on the Orient Express because it’s funny and it’s fun and it’s something that can distract everybody from other worries in their lives. At this time, I think we want that, whatever people have been going through for the past two years of this pandemic.”
HET certainly has the pedigree to pull it off. It was founded in 1981 by the late Edward Cogan, an American-born scientist who had a keen interest in amateur dramatics and who made aliyah with his family in 1968. HET sprang into life as the Haifa English (Community) Theatre Players and the company committee, which included late Scottish-born playwright Joyce Livingstone, settled on Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace to get the production ball rolling.
Over four decades later, HET is still doing the business, providing quality community theater entertainment to all and sundry, despite losing quite a few of the founding mothers and fathers over the years. Lewis Yisraeli made aliyah one year before HET came into existence, but says back then, she was busy having babies. She joined the gang in 1989.
She says HET has survived through thick and thin, plowing its own furrow through the theatrical domain and sticking to its professional and artistic tenets. “The AACI (Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel) helped us get off the ground and provided us with a phone line – in those days it wasn’t common to have a phone. We’ve always had a connection with the AACI, but we are very independent. No one supports us. We live off our ticket sales and we pay our royalties.”
Some passages of time have been more challenging than others, especially recently. “The past two years, with the pandemic, our last production was in 2019. We performed in Haifa and Carmiel in early 2020. And then we had a workshop and then shut everything down.” All of which makes the new project all the more exciting and gratifying.
Yet, it has not been a case of hitting the ground running. Lewis Yisraeli and colleagues found themselves getting back to basics and having to restart a pretty cold engine on all sorts of levels. “This is like giving birth,” she laughs. “We don’t normally go through more than three months of rehearsals. Everything shut down and then there were a number of deaths in our community, our theater community, and people flying off to have their shiva (period of mourning) in other countries. Then a few of the members of the cast caught COVID-19, so that took them out of the production for a while. It’s been very melodramatic.”
THE THEATER gang has endured all the above and come out fighting, swinging and ready to go another round or two on the stage.
This time, one of Christie’s most beloved characters, the intrepid Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot, is caught minding his own business on a long train journey back to London from vacation when he is called upon to investigate a murder of a fellow passenger. Naturally, there are plenty of suspects and Poirot ponders the various motives and whereabouts at the time of death of a Russian princess, a colonel, the dead woman’s personal secretary, the husband of a countess and a former chauffeur, to mention but a few.
The current HET production features a cast of 13, with Laurence Seeff as Poirot, Yoss Stybel as the detective’s sidekick Bouc, Montana Gillman in the role of the Countess, and Dana Lynne Weil as Caroline Hubbard.
There is a whole host of support personnel, including Clive Noble, whom Lewis Yisraeli regards as one of the linchpins of the company. “He wrote original music for this production, as he does for all our productions,” says the director. “It is so much fun working with him and learning from him. He has been responsible for many productions over the years in England and here. He’s been involved in HET pretty much since the beginning, even before me,” she cheerily adds.
Over the years, HET has attracted theater lovers from all walks of life and ages, including non-native English speakers. “We get people who are good English listeners,” Lewis Yisraeli observes, adding that all sorts of factors have come together to keep HET a going community concern. “We have had a lot of support from the mayors of Haifa in the past. There was Aryeh Gurel [who served 1978-93] and Yona Yahav, before he was mayor, introduced us to the people at the Museum of Art, which was our previous home [prior to Beit Hagefen].”
As well, Amram Mitzna, Gurel’s successor, offered HET a helping hand. “He gave me his phone number and said I should call him if I needed anything,” Lewis Yisraeli recalls. “He was always there with his door open to help us if we needed it.”
These days, keeping any cultural venture going is hard work and that goes doubly so for a community theater. Somehow, HET is still with us 41 years on, providing adults and kids alike with quality entertainment, and educational added value through workshops and Q&A sessions.
“I call this production a celebration of all that’s good in life,” says Lewis Yisraeli. “We have to remember that and keep it in the foreground all the time. No matter what happens, we keep chugging along because the play must go on. We’ve done it through mourning and joy and laughter.”
The director appears to be fully on board with the Bard’s all the world’s a stage ethos. “Our life is flavored with tears and laughter, and so is this show,” she says. “It is a celebration of life, and we’re going to keep on doing this.”
I wouldn’t bet against that.
For tickets and more information, visit: www.h-e-t.org.