Tel Aviv Int'l Theater Festival focuses on Russian refugees

The festival will take place at Malenky Theater (32 Homa Vemigdal Street, Tel Aviv) from Wednesday, July 6, to Sunday, July 10.

 MICHAEL TEPLITSKY and Anna Pereleshina at Malenky Theater. During a special reading of Ukrainian plays held in Tel Aviv, patrons wrote names and heartfelt descriptions of relatives and friends left behind in Ukraine. (photo credit: HAGAY HACOHEN)
MICHAEL TEPLITSKY and Anna Pereleshina at Malenky Theater. During a special reading of Ukrainian plays held in Tel Aviv, patrons wrote names and heartfelt descriptions of relatives and friends left behind in Ukraine.
(photo credit: HAGAY HACOHEN)

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the pain endured by refugees fleeing an unlivable homeland stand at the focus of the five-day 4th Tel Aviv International Theater Festival opening on Wednesday at the city’s Malenky Theater.

Malenky, with its 48 seats, is indeed small. Yet since it opened in 1997 it became a mecca of high-quality theater.

The festival includes a solo performance by Anna Pereleshina, an adaptation of a book by Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva titled Sonechka, a world premiere of The Whole New World by Russian-born, British-based director Konstantin Kamenski, and an exhibition of paintings by Jewish-Soviet painter Meer Akselrod.

The exhibited works depict the pain of Jewish refugees from the pale of settlement pushed out of their shtetlech to seek a new life in America and elsewhere in the beginning of the 20th century.

“Terrible things are happening in Russia right now, just as in 1919; some people are unable to leave.”

Anna Pereleshina

“Terrible things are happening in Russia right now, just as in 1919; some people are unable to leave,” Pereleshina, who has lived here since 2020, explained.  

“The wave of immigration is huge,” she added. “If you read the thoughts of those who left in the beginning of the 20th century [like Tsvetaeva], you will see very similar thoughts. Yes, you can buy a ticket, but maybe a neighbor will report something you said to the police, or a friend will email the security forces a screenshot of a social media post you wrote. There is the illusion of possibilities, and then there is fear.”

 People fleeing Russia's invasion of Ukraine rest in a temporary refugee centre in Chisinau (credit: VLADISLAV CULIOMZA / REUTERS) People fleeing Russia's invasion of Ukraine rest in a temporary refugee centre in Chisinau (credit: VLADISLAV CULIOMZA / REUTERS)

“My parents were raised in a kindergarten for children whose parents the USSR defined as ‘enemies of the state,’” Kamenski said.

His English-language play The Whole New World will take place on a moving bus – like those used to take migrants to processing centers.

Viewers will take part in an immersive theater experience, never sure who is acting, who is a fellow passenger.

Now living in the UK, Kamenski argued Russians were brought to the current state of affairs by those who have led Russia for the past two decades.

“We,” he said of his own generation, “were not prepared to fight these people. In the 1990s there was something like freedom in Russia, but nobody was willing to stand up for it, and things began to slide badly.”

Stand up for freedom

Kamenski studied Jewish history and Hebrew in Moscow before opting for a life in the theater. He directed Purim spiels for the Moscow Jewish community, an all-female production of Yukio Mishima’s My Friend Hitler, and Verdi’s Aida.

In London, where he shares his life with his Israeli husband, he produced Diaries of Madmen, a fusion of Gogol’s “Diary of Madman” and Tchaikovsky’s personal diary.

He runs his own production company titled 274. The company name is a nod to Harold Pinter’s Victoria Station where it is the name of one of the characters. Kamenski reimagined the Pinter play in 2016 as including poet Joseph Brodsky and placed it in a swimming pool.

“I wanted The Whole New World to be understood by British people,” he said, “not just to talk in Russian among ourselves. You want to talk to those who are able to do something about it and want to understand what future humanity is going to have.”  

First produced at the Activist Theater in Moscow, Sonechka is a fusion of stand-up, immersive theater, and a lament.

Writing in 1937 Paris, Tsvetaeva described what happened during the 1919 Russian Revolution to the people she loved.

The title honors a good friend of hers, actress Sophia Evgenieva Golliday, who was dead when Tsvetaeva wrote the book.

“Tsvetaeva thought Golliday was a great actress,” Pereleshina offered, “but that talent was not something [Soviet] society needed.”

The Russian-language solo performance will have Hebrew subtitles. In it, Pereleshina takes on the role of Golliday, allowing the gifted woman to return to life, at least on the stage.

In light of the war, many Russian-speakers began to take a critical stance when considering their great poets. Pushkin, who arguably began Russian literature, also called on West and East to submit, to be “a slave to the Tsar of the World!”

Lermontov used “Ulansha” to describe gang rape committed by a cavalry unit in amused terms. Brodsky described his thoughts on Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko by informing Ukrainians that “when it’s your turn to be dragged to graveyards/ You’ll whisper and wheeze/ your deathbed mattress a-pushing/ Not Shevchenko’s bullshit – but poetry lines from Pushkin.”

“Love is central to Tsvetaeva,” explained Peter Kriksunov, who translated her into Hebrew. He added that Tsvetaeva (and Anna Akhmatova) were the first female poets in Russian history.

Some theater shows, such as Alvis Hermanis’s Onegin. Commentaries, shown at Gesher Theater last year, focus on invoking a portal on stage. Viewers are invited to walk through it to understand great culture – in this example, Pushkin. Sonechka is different.

“Each performance is a new dialogue with the audience,” Pereleshina pointed out. “It is about love and human beings.”

“For a creator, immigration means losing your audience,” Malenky Theater director Michael Teplitsky said. “You become like Tsvetaeva in Paris. Your own dreams, the way you grew up – it is different from the dreams your new audience has, and you must speak with it. This is what this festival is meant to bring forth.”

With the exception of US theater director Philip Diskin, who founded the Khan Theater Jerusalem in 1967, Teplitsky cannot recall an example of the Israeli establishment accepting a foreign-born theater director into its midst.

The late Yevgeny Arye created his own theater, Gesher, in 1991 with Russian-speaking actors. He was not invited to the table; he brought his own.

“When I was a child,” Teplitsky shared, “I dreamt to be the artistic director of Habima national theater. This will never happen.

“Yoseph Millo was born in Prague and directed the Cameri Theater, true,” he added, “but that was when there were very few talents here. Today the message one gets is: ‘There is plenty of talent to go around even without you.’ This feeling of being placed out of the game is very depressing.”

Malenky was given state support by the Culture Ministry when it was led by Raleb Majadele in 2007. Recently, Malenky opened its doors to the Ethiopian-Israeli Hullegeb Ensemble, which brought Alice to Tel Aviv, a wordless adaptation of Alice in Wonderland based on body movement and humor.

“We, the 1990s immigration [from the USSR],” Teplitsky said, using an IDF analogy, “deserve a chance to be a little more than just a good soldier carrying out the orders of those born here.”

For Pereleshina, the question is “how can we be useful to the new country? to each other? to grow together? This is a vital issue,” she argued, “because this is the Jewish state, which accepts immigrants.”

“Theater has the power to educate, to fix things,” Teplitsky said. “In the UK, where the state had already been built, the national theater believes theater has power, serves a higher purpose.”

“The State of Israel is still being built,” he concluded. “We still need to sacrifice ourselves and ensure it has the best theater in the world.”

The festival will take place at Malenky Theater (32 Homa Vemigdal Street, Tel Aviv) from Wednesday, July 6, to Sunday, July 10. The Whole New World will be shown on Monday, July 7, at 10 p.m. NIS 126 per ticket. An exhibition of paintings by Meer Akselrod will open on Tuesday, July 8, at noon. Admission is free. Sonechka will be performed on that same day at 8 p.m. NIS 86 per ticket. Phone 054-248-8104 for tickets. Visit https://2202.kartisim.co.il/ to book online (Hebrew only).