The problem with marriage: 'Haketuba' takes the stage

Ephraim Kishon’s timeless play ‘Haketuba’ gets another run at Haifa Theater.

 EPHRAIM KISHON’S ‘Haketuba’ at the Haifa Theater. (photo credit: HAIFA THEATER)
EPHRAIM KISHON’S ‘Haketuba’ at the Haifa Theater.
(photo credit: HAIFA THEATER)

You can’t go far wrong with Ephraim Kishon. The late Hungarian-born Israeli satirist won acclaim around the globe for his darkly humorous and often preposterously comical books and plays, which have found their way into dozens of languages, and into the hearts and funny bones of millions of people from all kinds of cultural spheres.

Haketuba (The Marriage Certificate), which Kishon wrote in 1959, certainly presses all the right buttons and has kept box offices ticking over nicely since it was first unveiled at the Ohel Theater in Tel Aviv, in 1961.

Moshe Naor can attest to that personally, although he was not exactly counting his chickens when I caught him just before he and the cast began another rehearsal of Haketuba, which opens at Haifa Theater on December 8 (8:30 p.m.). “You are talking to me two days before the first show. I am pretty anxious right now,” he chuckles. “I am taking nothing for granted.”

That said Naor, who directs the new production and has served as artistic director of the theater company since 2008, can fall back on a previous highly successful run with the play. “Times change, actors change and it is a completely different production compared with the one I did 18 years ago,” he notes. Then again, he did pretty well with it back then. “Yes, it was a hit. It ran for almost 700 shows.” There was also the not-insignificant matter of getting the prestigious Yosef Milo Award for his directorial efforts.

He also tasted success with an earlier Kishon work, Shmo Holech Lefanav (His Reputation Precedes Him), which dates to 1953, and which Naor put on close to 400 times. Mind you, it can help to have some talent on stage, too. “That was with [veteran actor-comedians Shlomo] Baraba and Tiki Dayan,” he says, citing two of the most venerated professionals in the Israeli theatrical sector. Baraba leads the lineup in the current production too.

Naor says he is delighted to have another crack at the play. “I think ‘Haketuba’ is Kishon’s most complete play. That’s a given as far as I am concerned. But, of course, what you get is also a matter of casting. And there isn’t any material that you can’t fail with. It’s always a montage of things: the director, text, actors and music. There have been productions of Kishon plays that haven’t been a success.”

JERUSALEM FOUNDATION president Shai Doron inside the underground Davidson Theater in Jerusalem’s Liberty Bell Park. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)JERUSALEM FOUNDATION president Shai Doron inside the underground Davidson Theater in Jerusalem’s Liberty Bell Park. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

THE LATTER element is also front and center in the forthcoming rendition, with Naor opting to have music played live during the course of the performance. That was partly down to the historical juncture and how to conjure up the requisite natural ambiance.

“It wasn’t at all easy,” says Naor. “I had to set the play in a very specific year [1958], when they marked the first decade of the state. The characters in the play are preparing for the daughter’s wedding, while the Independence celebrations are going on. This is an Israeli period comedy, which is quite a rarity.”

Memories resurrected by music

Music is, of course, a powerful memory trigger for many, and knowing when a song, or songs, first came out helps to neatly place the storyline in its chronological slot, in association with the implied relevant events and zeitgeist. “That allowed me to gently introduce some numbers from the time,” Naor observes.

“There is ‘Hayoo Leilot’ (There Were Nights) and ‘Lifnot Erev’ (Dusk).” Both have enjoyed enduring popularity over the years and I wondered whether some of the older members of the Haifa Theater audience might be drawn to hum along, if not actually sing along, to the live performances of the hits of the day.

Naor says he wouldn’t have a problem with that. “That would be perfectly fine. The songs might evoke a sense of longing for those times and I think the production might bring out feelings of nostalgia for some people.” I noted that one of the things that impressed me about Israel, in my early years as an oleh, was the pervading sense of harking back to bygone times when life seemed simpler, and people had something to believe in and hang onto.

I felt that came across palpably in the frequent yesteryear song melodies played on the radio. I was also surprised by the number of younger Israelis, who couldn’t have been around when many of the numbers were fresh, who somehow managed to bask in a sort of hand-me-down sentimentality and longing for days gone by.

Naor gets that. “Perhaps some of the younger people in the audience ‘miss’ those days, which they didn’t actually experience in person. I hear young people saying ‘I should have been born in the last century’,” he laughs. That may be a vicarious scenario, but it wouldn’t do ticket sales any harm.

Stories that can't wait to be told

Haketuba tells the tale of a couple, a chauvinist plumber called Elimelech and his long-suffering wife Shifra, whose daughter Ayala wants to get married. Ayala’s beau comes from a family of illustrious rabbinical lineage and the prospective in-laws ask to see Elimelech and Shifra’s ketuba, to make sure all is kosher. The smelly stuff hits the proverbial fan when the religious certificate cannot be found.

 TZEDI TZARFATI’S latest musical production, ‘Ida.’ (credit: SHANNA FULD) TZEDI TZARFATI’S latest musical production, ‘Ida.’ (credit: SHANNA FULD)

Comedic and even farcical sequences abound throughout although Kishon, as was his wont, also uses the play as a vehicle for laying some weighty issues on the discussion table. The institution of marriage is placed firmly under the microscope and the intricacies and challenges of husband-wife relationships get the philosophical once over.

WHEN ASKED about the meaning of the work, when it was staged on Broadway in 1963, Kishon typically had a down-to-earth explanation for the success of Haketuba. “The play is about the lives of the common people, the family of a plumber. It is important and makes a lot of sense to write about common people because kings and presidents come and go but the plumber always stays. This makes him the most important man on earth.”

That was probably said with a modicum of tongue-in-cheek and it is more than likely that the celebrated writer was taking a swipe at the leaders of the time.

Naor may have several decades of success to build on but surely, the late 1950s was a very different time in terms of what was considered socially acceptable. And let’s not forget the PC police. “That’s exactly what the play is about,” he posits.

“It’s about a patriarchal household in which the wife is like the husband’s servant. She has to be careful about how she keeps the house because her husband wants everything to be the way he likes. But she rebels, as soon as she discovers the ketuba has gone missing. Basically, this is a feminist play and the rules of the house are redefined.”

That’s the way things were, says the director, and they have to be presented as such in keeping with the period in question. “My father also used to come from work to a tidy home and it was not taken for granted that my mother could also have a job. Maybe some people miss those times but that’s probably only the men,” he laughs.

That may be so but Haketuba should leave its audiences with smiles on their faces and, no doubt, something to mull over on their way home.

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