New Elad Theater company is a theater oasis in Eilat

The Elad Theater company is unlike anything I’ve seen, and I can only attribute that to the fantastic cast and crew, led by the two founders as well as director Shai Pitowski.

 GUY COHEN-SHALEV performs a spirited cover of Paul Simon’s ‘50 Ways to Leave Your Lover’ during the show ‘It Must Be Love.’  (photo credit: Orel Revivo)
GUY COHEN-SHALEV performs a spirited cover of Paul Simon’s ‘50 Ways to Leave Your Lover’ during the show ‘It Must Be Love.’
(photo credit: Orel Revivo)

Not all dreams come true, but the dream of two young performers, Boaz Dan and Dana Yitzchaki, to create a professional theater company in Eilat seems to have been fated for reality. Whether they accomplish their ultimate goal of establishing a center of art and culture in Israel’s southernmost region is still up in the air. They have already amassed a warm, passionate and talented community of people, and have shown a commitment to testing boundaries and experimenting with performance styles that they claim would not work in Tel Aviv.

The Elad Theater company is unlike anything I’ve seen, and I can only attribute that to the fantastic cast and crew, led by the two founders as well as director Shai Pitowski. Their artistic vision comes across clearly in their work.

The company is named after Boaz’s late brother, Elad Dan, who died in 2006 during the Second Lebanon War. Over the past nine years, Boaz, Dana, Shai and the rest of the crew have created something truly special in Elad’s name.

The two-day festival at the beginning of September kicked off at Eilat Wines with It Must Be Love. The show, written by and for an ensemble and performed in the winery itself, was more of a series of musings on the nature of love than it was a single cohesive plot. 

A young couple (Yoav Donat and Adva Levi) enters the winery, already in a big fight, and are waited on by a cheery sommelier (Boaz Dan). They are followed by their inner monologues (Guy Cohen-Shalev and Nili Rogel), also fighting with each other but more cuttingly, getting at deeper issues than the couple is. 

 ELAD THEATER’S performance of ‘The Old Man and the Sea,’ during which the audience is blindfolded.  (credit: Tali Zidenberg) ELAD THEATER’S performance of ‘The Old Man and the Sea,’ during which the audience is blindfolded. (credit: Tali Zidenberg)

Over the course of the show, the couple reconciles as the waiter’s cheery demeanor is brought low as his girlfriend breaks up with him over the phone. Between scenes, the cast members performed musical numbers – all variations on the same theme of love – and ended with dramatic readings of nonsensical love poetry written one line at a time by the audience members at their respective tables. Overall, it was a bit corny but mostly fun.

The Terminal, home of the Elad Theater company

THAT EVENING, we made our way over to the Terminal, the current home of the Elad Theater company. There is no stage or permanent seating to speak of; rather, a series of open rooms. And for the evening’s entertainment, we witnessed an abridged version of Wajdi Mouawad’s play, Tideline.

Mouawad is a Lebanese-Canadian playwright whose works tend to focus on family trauma in the context of war. Tideline specifically tells the dreamlike tale of Wilfrid, who is suddenly tasked with burying the body of his estranged father. He journeys back to his father’s homeland to find an appropriate burial site, and picks up traveling companions along the way who are picking up the pieces of their shattered post-war lives.

The audience followed Wilfrid on his harrowing journey, each scene bringing us into a new room with a new set. We traveled to Wilfrid’s apartment, the morgue, the airport, the desert and finally the seaside. 

The show covered a number of very heavy themes; however, the constant physical movement, periodic comic relief and abridged nature of the show (2.5 hours cut down from four) broke through some of its weight. The creative, dynamic set design added to the fabulous performance of Eli Danker as Wilfred’s father’s re-animated corpse.

The following afternoon the Elad Theater company performed The Old Man and the Sea, although I cannot truthfully say that I saw it, since the audience was blindfolded. Personally, I found the blindfold distracting; however, upon reflection, I could not think of a reasonable alternative that would result in the same immersive experience. 

To their credit, the cast and crew managed to create an IMAX-style surround sound experience live. And the actors later revealed that they felt somewhat freer and less self-conscious when the audience was blindfolded, which they posited elevated their performance.

A center of culture in Israel's periphery

BRINGING A center of culture to Israel’s periphery is no small feat, but the Elad Theater company has garnered a significant amount of local support. Specifically, Meir Yitzchak Halevi, past mayor of Eilat and current deputy Education Minister, and Eli Lankri, the current mayor of Eilat, attended the festival.

“I think that in the South you’re clean,” Boaz Dan told The Jerusalem Post when asked about the difference between the theater scene in central Israel vs the periphery. “You don’t have traffic jams, you don’t need to work as a bartender [on top of your acting job]. [Actors] have the time. The rehearsal [space] is 15 steps from your house. 

“The time that we use for creativity and to develop the show is 100% of the time. Everybody is here. You’re free to work. You have a lot more time to marinate [in your art].”

The company has also built international connections in the US. Earlier this year, they partnered with Shakespeare & Company, a professional theater company in Massachusetts that has an award-winning education program. One of their educational endeavors, the annual Fall Festival of Shakespeare, came to Eilat this past winter to partner with Elad. The program was led here by Noa Egozi, a Shakespeare & Company member, director and teacher.

“We started [in 2019] with one group and it was a great success, so we opened it to three new high schools,” Boaz explained. “The idea is to do a festival [in which, during the course of] one week, each day you can see another Shakespeare show. Each group gets one director from the US who works with them in English using the Shakespeare & Company’s methods. [They also get] one of the directors from Elad. And we find a way to do it in English and Hebrew.”

The final show of the festival was Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan MacMillan – obviously translated into Hebrew and adapted for an Israeli audience. It is a one-character show; the protagonist was expertly portrayed by Dvir Benedek. The plot is simple: A son creates a list of things worth living for – all in an attempt to raise the spirits of his chronically depressed mother. The show relies heavily on audience participation and therefore is slightly different each time it is performed.

Benedek’s performance brought me to tears. I laughed and cried and was so deeply involved in the story that I felt I had lived a whole other life by the time it was over.

In truth, all of the shows at the festival moved me emotionally in one way or another. Every play spoke to me personally, somehow. Obviously, the event was not tailored to trigger my own feelings of nostalgia, despair, joy and fulfillment. Rather, Elad Theater is creating art that intentionally aims to speak to deep universal human experiences. They are not just putting on plays; they are seeking to engage.

“We have found a way to do site-specific theater that is committed to the narrative,” concluded Boaz. “Most of the time you can see theater – it’s a show and it’s nice. Here you have a story. A hard story, or a funny story like It Must Be Love, but it is always different. It’s much more creative and connected. [It’s good] if you’re trying to get out of your safe zone.”

Anyone can be reasonably confident that they will be moved by any show they see by the Elad Theater Company. Whether or not the emotions evoked will be pleasant, I cannot say. But if you are looking for an off-the-beaten-path option for theater in Israel, the Elad Theater Company comes highly recommended.

The writer was a guest of the theater.