Lolita/Jeanne d’Arc Gesher Theater

In Jeanne d’Arc, faith and innocence meet realpolitik.

ISRAEL SASHA DEMIDOV plays Humbert Humbert in ‘Lolita.’  (photo credit: YISHAYAHU FEINBERG)
ISRAEL SASHA DEMIDOV plays Humbert Humbert in ‘Lolita.’
(photo credit: YISHAYAHU FEINBERG)
First of all, congratulations are in order to Gesher, Yekezkel Lazarov, Israel Sasha Demidov and Doron Tavori. To Gesher, which since its first performances in the early ‘90s, has never been afraid to stick its neck out; to Lazarov for, on the face of it, a most unlikely combination of heroines; and to actors Demidov and Tavori for bravura performances.
Lolita follows the iconic book by Vladimir Nabokov about Humbert Humbert, an aging and mentally unstable pedophile (Demidov), and his obsession for the 12-year-old daughter of his landlady, who he nicknames Lolita (the voice of Alona Tzimberg). Like the book, the play follows the uneven, exploitive, and ultimately fatal sexual and emotional relationship between the two, and between Humbert and the other men (Tavori) in Lolita’s life, from a dogged detective to a famous playwright who Humbert murders in a jealous rage, thereby leading to his own downfall.
Jeanne d’Arc deals with the 1431 heresy trial of Joan of Arc (Kiki, a robot with Tzimberg’s voice), who was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1920. The Inquisitor (Tavori) tries every trick in the book to get Joan to incriminate herself, but she eludes him to the end.
To say that this pairing is unusual is to put it mildly. On one hand we have Lolita, a not-so-innocent, conniving, perhaps even amoral teenager. On the other we have Joan, an illiterate 15th-century peasant girl who was burned at the stake for heresy, and whose (blatantly political) conviction was overturned in 1456, her innocence legally and morally confirmed.
Does it work? Yes and no.
Yes, because of its daring, its staging, its two actors, and because the juxtaposition of its characters is not a gimmick but a means, shockingly, to communicate ideas that we, the audience, need to acknowledge.
No, because at its worst, specifically in Lolita, it got a little self-indulgent, which is to say, what was needed was more ruthlessness and less dazzle, which Jeanne provided.
And dazzle there is. A group of girls dressed in white practices ballet at the barre. Those same girls bear witness in Jeanne. A white Cadillac convertible _ here also the symbol of impermanence – dominates the stage in Lolita. Kiki (Jeanne) is white. White is the color of purity and of innocence.
In Jeanne d’Arc, faith and innocence meet realpolitik. Neither side has a chance. In Lolita, innocence never has a chance either, because there isn’t any. Both the girl and the man are damaged goods. One exploits the other. In the program, Lazarov talks about morality. The key to both plays is actually innocence, also known as virtue in its most literal sense, something that World War I took care of in the previous century. When last did we hear of someone being deemed virtuous? The word itself arouses only a snigger these days.
Lolita also put a strain on the actors in terms of text. There is so much of it that both Demidov and Tavori gabbled, and to such an extent, that a lot of the text was simply unintelligible, with the brunt borne by Demidov.
That said, Demidov’s Humbert is a chronically restless, pathetic, uncoordinated and self-justifying; by turns craven, by turns bravado-filled creature – all of which makes for a towering performance, a characterization that is utterly believable. The same may be said of Tavori, whose various characters emanate slyness and corruption.
As the Inquisitor in Jeanne d’Arc, he is wonderfully intense and focused, so much so that one almost forgets – as one is supposed to – that his antagonist is a robot. Let us not forget the voice of Tzimberg that powers both Lolita (who we never see) and Joan, both females, both abused by the male world, and both in their way indomitable.
So, Lolita is a little bit flawed and prolix. Jeanne d’Arc is terse and powerful. And both are worth seeing.