An evening in Bedlam

The performers of Tel Aviv Community Theater gear up to let loose for an upcoming rendition of Cinderella

bedlam 88 224 (photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
bedlam 88 224
(photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
In the midst of all the raucous disorder, two large men dressed in women's clothing stand toe to toe, screaming at each other with hands on hips, squabbling huffily over a dress. "That's MY dress!" screams the first man, pointing to the garish outfit that the other man is wearing. "No, this is NOT your dress," the other man yells back, protectively covering his blouse with both hands. "THAT's your dress, the one you're wearing!" "No, no, NO! I am NOT wearing this dress! I want THAT one," replies the first man petulantly, stamping one of his large feet for emphasis. A short distance away, a trim man preens and pirouettes in a handsome 18th-century waistcoat and breeches, replete with buckled shoes, knee-hose and a light brown wig with a short pigtail. Nearby, a tall woman gracefully dressed in a shimmering white gown smiles distractedly while waving what appears to be some sort of magic wand slowly from side to side. A little boy dressed in part of a court jester's costume skips around among the adults, virtually unnoticed. The cacophony of shouting and laughter transforms the large hall into a happy, friendly Bedlam. All at once, everyone's attention is drawn to a very pretty young girl with long blond hair, wearing a tattered medieval-looking dress and holding an old-fashioned straw broom, with which she proceeds to sweep the floor. These are some of the colorful scenes that would have greeted any visitor who chanced to wander into Tel Aviv's Beit Yad Lebanim one evening recently, as cast members of Tel Aviv Community Theater's (TACT) upcoming production of Cinderella were busy trying on their new costumes and waiting to be photographed for publicity "stills." Maddy Mordechai, Chairperson of TACT and director of Cinderella, paused from distributing pieces of costume to various and sundry cast members long enough to explain that TACT was formed more than 50 years ago by a group of English-speaking immigrants. In the beginning, they did little more than read plays aloud in each other's homes. Later on, they slowly graduated from play-reading to play-production and became known as the ZOA House Drama Circle. The group became a fully-fledged nonprofit organization some 20 years ago, assuming its present name and coming officially under the auspices of Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality. TACT currently stages a diverse array of theatrical productions year-round - all produced by non-professional actors, musicians, directors and stage crew. As the nights in Tel Aviv begin to take on a noticeable autumn chill, TACT is excitedly preparing for its annual, eagerly-awaited pantomime show, staged every year during the Hanukkah holiday season. Cinderella will open at Beit Yad Lebanim on December 5, and will play December 6, 8, 9 and 10. Choreographer Yardena Shapiro, for example, says, "Every year when we put on a show, we're all saying, 'We're not going to make it! We're not going to make it!' Last year we put on Aladdin with a huge cast, and the first time we all got together was on opening night. And this year's show is going to be bigger." In Israel since 1960, Shapiro began her involvement with the theater in her native Johannesburg. "I was a dancer back in South Africa, and then I joined a group that put on shows for charity. I took it upon myself to teach the chorus how to dance on stage. None of them were dancers, so I started teaching people who don't dance how to dance, and how to make it look good on stage," she recalls. She started doing the same at TACT in the 1970s with a performance of My Fair Lady, and has been with the group ever since. "Whenever they need help, they shout and I come," she says. Shapiro glances around the lobby and adds, "I'm not dealing with dancers here. Just show people - people who love to be on stage and give it their very best." Jane Davidson, mentally gearing up for her role of Fairy Godmother, agrees. A retired teacher of psychiatric nursing and member of the Light Opera Group of the Negev for many years, this Baltimore native exclaims, "I'm very excited about this production. I've never done 'over the top' stuff before. I've always been very restrained, but in this play you have to give it your all and really let loose." Two individuals who seem to have no trouble letting loose are the two men arguing over dresses, Amnon Avidor, set to play Cinderella's ugly step-sister Asphyxia, and Yisrael Levitt, cast as the even uglier step-sister Euthanasia. When not appearing "in drag" in one of TACT's Hanukkah pantomime shows, the genial Mr. Avidor is the documentation manager for a local software company, and the equally amiable Levitt is a family physician. They are soon joined by Zvi Bar, wearing the 18th-century clothes and wig in which he will play Baron Henry Hardup, Cinderella's step-father. In "real life" an anesthesiologist, but "taking a bit of a sabbatical at the moment," Bar writes poetry, has a website and hopes to bring out a book of poetry soon. Another large man in a woman's dress rounds out the group, the popular Albert Levy, who will play Baroness Medusa Hardup, Cinderella's cruel step-mother. An accountant by profession, Levy has performed in TACT productions since 1979. In addition to its roster of seasoned adult actors, TACT provides valuable learning and stage experience to a talented array of aspiring young actors and students of theater. One such rising talent is Oryana Dinarsky, 18, dressed in rags and earnestly practicing the art of floor-sweeping for the title role of Cinderella. Dinarsky attended drama school in her hometown of Netanya and appeared in the school's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. She studied singing for six years. Asked if she plans to pursue acting as a career, she replies without hesitation, "I very much hope so. I enjoy it so much." What kind of theater? "Anything! I just enjoy being on stage - especially singing on stage. It's just so much fun for me. The adrenaline…everything!" The pretty young actress has two years in the army ahead of her, followed - hopefully, she says - by an immediate return to the theater. Another talented young actress receiving her costume this evening is Avital Sykora, 17, set to play Dandini, Squire to Prince Charming. Singing since she was six, Sykora discovered musical theater in the eighth grade. Musicals remain her favorite kind of theater, especially "anything by Stephen Sondheim." After two years of high-school theater workshops at the Bet Zvi drama school in Ramat Gan, she participated in TACT's most recent summer workshop and appeared in their showcase last September. Will she make a career of acting? "I'm going to try really hard to," she says with a laugh. As for Cinderella, Sykora says, "It's very different from anything I've ever done. In the beginning I felt a little bit out of place, as one of three Americans in a cast full of people from the UK who know the pantomime genre. It was very confusing at first, but it's all coming together now." What is pantomime? If, like Sykora, you happen to be American, you probably hear the term and think of someone like the late Marcel Marceau, or remember the armies of annoying young men in black leotards and white face-paint that used to infest places like Harvard Square in Cambridge, Greenwich Village in New York, or anywhere in San Francisco during the 1970s, silently following people around and attempting to mimic their movements. That was "mime." Pantomime is something else. Pantomime, or "Panto" as it is affectionately called by its legions of fans, is a popular British art form that dates back to medieval Italy and "Commedia dell' Arte," a type of traveling street entertainment that featured dance, music, song, acrobatics, slapstick comedy and buffoonery. Each itinerant Commedia dell' Arte troupe had its own repertoire of stories it performed to large, noisy crowds in market places and fairs. Many of these wandering troupes were made up of family members who were expected to bequeath their characters, costumes, masks and stories to children and grandchildren. Commedia dell'Arte spread across Europe from Italy to France, making its way to England by the middle of the 17th century. Today, according to one historian of the genre, "this peculiar form of entertainment is as much a part of Britain's heritage as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London, warm beer and cricket." Among the most popular Pantomime shows today are Aladdin, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Dick Whittington, Jack & the Beanstalk, Peter Pan and, of course, Cinderella - said to be the oldest subject of Pantomime and the most popular. Regardless of the story, however, certain basic elements are always present: A girl dressed as a boy, who is the son of a man dressed as a woman, will woo and win the heart of another girl dressed as a girl with the assistance of a person dressed as an animal. It's even funnier than it sounds. Added to this are song and dance routines inspired by everything from British Music Hall to American Burlesque, along with uninhibited audience participation and verbal jousting between audience members and the characters on stage. Despite the circus atmosphere, Pantomime plays are not just for kids, says TACT's Mordechai. "They're not really just for children. They're for all ages. In England they usually have pantomimes at Christmas, with big stars in the main roles. It's really for all ages. It's not like a children's fairy tale. They use broad comedy, vulgarity, and things that go over the heads of children but which adults in the audience will get." TACT's upcoming production of Cinderella, she says, will have a lot of local flavor and humor, as well as original songs and lyrics by the show's pianist and musical director, Daniel Schwartzman. With memories of last year's hit production of Alladin still fresh, TACT's cast and crew members vow that this year's production of Cinderella will be even bigger, better, louder and funnier. Judging from the sheer enthusiasm of the interesting melange of people seen modeling their costumes in Beit Yad Lebanim's cavernous lobby, it very well may be. For more information or to book tickets, call Beit Yad Lebanim at 03-6041707 or 03-5467404, Sunday - Thursday, 9 a.m. - 3 p.m.