"Net" political theater

Natur's powerful performance forces the audience to experience the Palestinians' despair rather than to understand it, reaching emotion rather than intellect, yet neither preachy nor whiney.

palestinian boy 88 (photo credit: )
palestinian boy 88
(photo credit: )
For the first time, Tel Aviv's competition Teatronetto Festival came up the hills to Jerusalem, performed at The Lab. And the locally produced Within Spitting Distance, written by Tahir Najib, directed by the Lab's artistic director Ofira Henig, performed by Halifa Natur and produced by The Lab, was winner of the first-place Nissim Azikri prize, awarded to the best actor in the competition. The Teatronetto Festival was established 16 years ago by Ya'acov Agmon and provides a competitive venue for independent authors and actors. The festival is composed solely of monodramas, performed by a single actor. It is theater at its "net" value - an actor, a script, a set and a stage, with little else to distract the audience. "Within Spitting Distance is an example of the Lab's collaboration with other artistic venues," says spokeswoman and manager Rivi Beller. "At the Lab, we emphasize performances that include high levels of technology and multimedia, so we thought it particularly appropriate to produce a play that focuses solely on the actor." And there was, Beller says, another, more prosaic reason to collaborate with the Teatronetto festival. "Jerusalemites are entitled to see high-quality programs from other parts of the country. We at the Lab contributed a production and we also used our funds to bring the six best productions from the festival to the Lab. In the past, we also brought performances from the Acre festival, too. We are committed to enabling Jerusalemites to enjoy innovative, high-quality performances on their home ground." The choice of the production, says director Henig, was consistent with the artistic direction of the Lab. "We are committed to two principles," Henig says. "We believe in multiculturalism and multidisciplinarity. These are the two keys that guide our work. It is important to us that our stage provide an opportunity for expression of other cultures, even if they are presented in Hebrew." The Lab is dedicated to promoting modern Israeli culture, she continues, "but there is no such thing as 'pure' Israeli culture. Israeli culture is multicultural, and that is part of its beauty." Written over the past three years, Within Spitting Distance is a painfully amusing and often deeply disturbing play that raises existential questions about Palestinian identity, self-understanding, home and homelessness, and belonging and rootlessness. The play tells the story of an actor whose performances take him from Ramallah to Paris to Tel Aviv and lead him to travel on September 11. As he travels, with an Israeli passport, a profession that takes him from one role to another, and a religion and a culture that make him internationally suspect - especially on 9/11 - airports and stages alike turn into sights of absurdity. At the same time, playwright Najib criticizes the Palestinians, who, as the title implies, spit on themselves and seem unable to determine their own fate. The title relates to other depths, too. It relates to the close proximity in which Jews and Arabs live to each other - "within spitting distance" - and they often do spit on each other, figuratively and, in the play, literally. It is also a protest against the occupation, since, through a play on words, the Hebrew for spitting is sometimes pronounced in a way that could be heard as the word for "shooting." Minimalist and highly intelligent, alternately highly stylized and free-style, Within Spitting Distance is "net" political theater. Natur's powerful performance forces the audience to experience the Palestinians' despair rather than to understand it, reaching emotion rather than intellect, yet neither preachy nor whinny. In awarding the first place to Natur, the competition judges wrote that his "engaging performance [is] filled with sensitivity, humor, humanity and wisdom, the influence of which continues to echo through the chambers of the soul long after the performance has ended. With minimalist means, and with credible identification with the theatrical materials, the actor and his partners have created a powerful and precise drama. Natur's performance is an excellent example of an actor's ability to take advantage of a single-person play, while using his own professional abilities and his enchanting personality." The audience at the premiere performance at The Lab was clearly delighted with the play, applauding rhythmically for repeated curtain calls. Afterward, as the crowd filled the small bar and bistro area of The Lab, the playwright Najib, director Henig and actor Natur, together with The Lab's founder and funder, Erel Margalit, mingled freely with the enthusiastic crowd. Natur, 40, was born in the Triangle region in northern Israel and lives in Umm el-Fahm. He is a graduate of the Ben-Zvi School of Acting and widely considered to be one of the most talented representatives of the new Palestinian theater. Although he appeared somewhat emotionally and physically drained after the intense performance, he spoke willingly about the play and his perceptions. "In this performance, I meet my own Israeliness, the reality in which we all have to live, Jews and Arabs. Our own culture has been repressed, and I myself am learning about it. And I am learning to tell about my culture and experience. I believe that as a Palestinian, I do have something to say and I am pleased that Jewish audiences are willing to listen." Noting that not one play in Arabic participated in the Teatronetto, he says, "Even the plays about Arabs were in Hebrew. We have wonderful actors, an entire new generation of young, talented professionals, but no one knows about them. We do have a culture. It is different and equal to the majority, Jewish culture and you can't just erase it." The play, he notes, was written over the most difficult years of the second intifada, when Natur and Najib, as Palestinians, were regularly subjected to security checks and stopped at checkpoints. With the same thin, sharp humor he displays in the performance, Natur says, "Sometimes I think I should just write 'Arab' on my shirt. I don't mean to be provocative. Maybe it would just make things easier - everyone would know at the outset who I am and maybe the authorities wouldn't stop me as often as they do." Noting that she has worked with both Natur and Najib in the past, Henig adds, "It is very important to us to develop relationships with our actors. Tahir was an actor in a previous production, Salome. And we helped him get a scholarship to travel to London, where he was able to work and complete the writing of Within Spitting Distance. Henig has been living in Jerusalem for nearly ten years now, and she doubts that there is a particular form of "Jerusalem culture." "I think that there is no relativity in art. It is either good or bad. But I do believe in the context and the environment in which the art is created. Jerusalem offers a certain kind of quiet, a different pace, that allows you to slow down and to search." Yet she is critical of what she views as the lack of financial support for art in Jerusalem. "Not everything that is culture is true art. Jerusalem has been focusing on the big events, and seems to forget that the most important component in art, and even in these events, are the creators who create the art." Within Spitting Distance will continue showing at the Lab throughout the summer.