From Russia with love

The capital’s Mikro Theater sets its own standards.

Efim Rinenberg stars in Mikro Theater’s production of ‘Herzlmania.’ (photo credit: YVGENI YESHINSKI)
Efim Rinenberg stars in Mikro Theater’s production of ‘Herzlmania.’
(photo credit: YVGENI YESHINSKI)
It was all set up like a play – the love story between the main characters was unavoidable.
Irina Gorelik encountered Jerusalem for the first time in Mikhail Bulgakov’s famous novel The Master and Margarita and fell immediately in love with the city which she could then, as a young girl of 16, only imagine. It was only a few years later, after she made aliya with her family, that she made her way to the city of her dreams.
“It was the eve of Yom Kippur,” she recalls. “There was the quietness of that particular day; but, moreover, there was such a special light all over the city, even at night. I didn’t want to live anywhere else. Jerusalem was for me a love story from the first moment,” she says.
The love story between Gorelik and Jerusalem is the basis of a new production by the Mikro Theater, which she established, a production based on stories she has gathered that portray the city as a living heart.
Gorelik made aliya from the former Soviet Union in 1994, already a seasoned theater professional. She quickly set about forming the Mikro company in her new hometown of Jerusalem, working out of bomb shelters and assorted other facilities. After a decade-long nomadic existence, Mikro finally found a long-term base in the smaller of the Khan Theater’s two halls.
In 2015, she and her troupe moved into much grander premises, becoming the first repertory to set up shop within the Jerusalem Theater complex. The move not only provided Mikro with a highly respectable and plush home, it gave the host arts center the opportunity to house a bona fide repertory within its walls in addition to the vast array of outside productions it puts on yearround.
“This was a dream and it has come true – I live here in Jerusalem, I have established a theater here in the center of Jerusalem; so this city speaks to me,” she says.
More than 20 years have passed since Gorelik established the theater – at the outset mostly for at-risk youth from the Russian community of newcomers, and then as a real theater based on the great theatrical Russian tradition, but with an added dimension of more modern and local adaptations.
Over the years, the Mikro Theater has become a beacon of high-quality cultural destinations, offering a blend of Russian, European and Jewish works, which come out to the stage after being translated, adapted by Gorelik or Efim Rinenberg, the theater’s playwright.
The daughter of an actor and a playwright, Gorelik says she couldn’t have done anything that wasn’t involved with theater. From an early age, she knew that she wanted to continue the family tradition, the world of theater in which she was born and brought up in Saratov in central Russia.
“By the 1990s, life in Russia became simply impossible.
My husband is an engineer and we just wanted to live, but in order to survive he couldn’t even really work in his profession. This led us to realize that our life in Russia was over, and we made aliya,” says Gorelik.
She was not driven by Zionism, but emphasizes that she has become profoundly Zionist over the years she has spent here.
“I began to read and to learn a lot about Zionism and mostly about Judaism. I am not a believer, although I have a tremendous respect for believers, but I read a lot about Jewish history and faith and thought,” she says.
“This has become my biggest love, and along with it an interest in Jewish literature. You can see that in our theater repertoire; we include a lot of the Jewish modern literature – not always plays. In fact, what I like the most to work with are texts and prose, which I arrange and adapt to the stage. That’s much more interesting for me than just bringing in plays.”
Asked how a person whose whole life is linked with words and language could dare to make such a dramatic change and move to a country without knowing the language, Gorelik admits that it was a huge challenge.
“But I simply did it. There is no recipe I can recommend for that – it’s a matter of what a person can or cannot do.
I would say if you have the motor, if you’re crazy enough, then you can do it. If you don’t waste your time complaining, or if you don’t expect anybody to owe you something, then you will just do what is necessary – and that’s what we did, my husband and me.”
BY 2004, MIKRO had evolved from a studio to a small theater that brought some of the classics of Russian drama to the stage. Within three years, the theater gained the support of both the Culture and Sport Ministry and the Jerusalem Municipality.
For Gorelik as well as for Rinenberg – once a youth who was searching for his place in society, who finally landed in Gorelik’s studio, and is today a major translator and director of adapted texts – the most important part is to widen the range of the material brought to the stage.
This a unique aspect of the place – Gorelik says they look for texts and writers that have not been used by any other theater in the country. This is their mission, as she understands it. “Jewish writers from here and out in the world – I wish to bring their writings to the stage; this is part of my view of the meaning of culture.”
“We are doing high-quality work; this is not an industry, this is culture,” she adds. “Our goal is to do good theater, not to just make a profit by giving the public something on a low level. If I offer a new play on Jerusalem, I am saying to the public: ‘Pay attention! You have something very special in your hands. This city is not just like any other city. You have to deserve it.’ We wish to reach – through our work here – the moment where Jerusalem will become the center of the arts and culture of this country. That is what we are aiming at.”
Rinenberg says that he wouldn’t define Mikro as a Russian theater.
“Irina brings the Russian school of theater, less on the level of how you play it, but more in the context of what does it mean to be a theater? What does it add to the life of the society? What are the place and the role of a theater?” he says.
“For example, she will make a point to bring to our stage Jewish and Israeli literature and dramas from all over the world as world premieres here. That is this theater’s mission and vision – to give the public an opportunity to meet those texts and stories.
This is a real challenge; that’s what we do: Hanoch Levin, with a text that hasn’t ever been performed in any other theater in Israel; or texts of Etgar Keret, or Meir Shalev, and what we did with Shimshon by Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
“Mikro Theater exists already 20 years,” Rinenberg continues.
“It means something. We develop, we change, we do not think or do the same things we did 20 years ago, but we are faithful to the basic idea – that of a high-quality theater.”
The man who takes all these dreams and visions and turns them into realities on the ground is Yossi Zinger, the manager of Mikro Theater. The newly constructed large and beautiful hall and the added story above it for offices and a production site is the result of a joint effort of the ministry, municipality, Sherover Fund and Jerusalem Theater.
The theater is a nonprofit, and Zinger says that they consider themselves a “boutique theater” – “it is what I would call a theater for good walkers; I mean, for people who love theater and are ready to follow a text, not always a simple one.” In fact, he adds, “this theater is situated between a fringe theater and a repertoire theater, and we are neither this nor that – we are not fringe, considering the very strict observance of theater’s demands in terms of scenery and settings, but on the other hand, it is not our purpose to fill up large halls and only make a profit – this is not our goal.
“We do well-made plays – and we bring things that you won’t find on other stages. We work with what we call classics.”
On its ties with the city’s Russian community, Zinger says that while the theater has a Russian basis – a large part of its public are from the former Soviet Union, and the subtitles are in Russian – the outlook is toward the large public, including adding Israeli works and authors.
On top of it all, he says, “We do it our way, we do it differently.”
Barry Davis contributed to this story.