Sara Siegel has a sense of humor. More to the point, her grandma Marcella, whom Sara addressed as Nonna – Italian for grandmother – had a well-developed funny bone that definitely leaned toward the darker side of the comedic scale.
That will come through in Siegel’s performative theatrical production Nonna, which occupies three slots in this year’s Israel Festival (September 15-22), with performances set for September 21 (8 p.m.) and the last day of the festival, at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m.
That seems to be the general artistic line favored by festival artistic directors Itay Mautner and Michal Vaknin, with a large proportion of the items on the programmatic bill based on a performative core. However, it is a fair bet that Nonna is the most emotive of them all.
What is the storyline?
The storyline feeds off an unusual state of affairs on all sorts of levels. There is the familial setup, which is essentially an insular and powerfully female one. The forthcoming show was preceded by a movie Siegel made, as a student at the School of Visual Theater, which offers an intimate, almost painfully moving and, at times, hysterically funny and touching portrait of three generations of women, with Siegel’s American-born mother, Dvora, betwixt. Oh, and let’s not forget Norah, the – naturally – female canine, who gets in on the act in the documentary footage.
The show’s full moniker, Nonna – A Living Room Journey, spells out the physical, familial and emotional setting. The performative action, which will wend its way across numerous disciplinary avenues and improvisational departures, feeds off the domestic spirit of Marcella’s home on the sixth floor of one of the only tall buildings in Nahlaot, thus far. The way the Jerusalem skyline is currently changing, that may radically change before too long.
The vertical vantage point was central to Nonna’s way of life there and, it later transpired, Siegel’s memories of her grandmother, who died four years ago at the age of 88. That also informs the way Siegel reconstructs Nonna’s precious presence in her life.
There are manifold strata to the real-life story and the narrative of the production. Nonna’s backdrop as a partisan in Italy during WWII is a palpable element in her life, and the emotional baggage she left behind for Siegel to process, which Siegel works into the fabric of the staged performance. Footwear, for example, is a stark reminder of the Holocaust, both as a collective Jewish memory and a component of Siegel’s accrued DNA. “I am always collecting shoes,” she laughs. “Anyone I know who sees a shoe in the street gets in touch with me.”
“I am always collecting shoes. Anyone I know who sees a shoe in the street gets in touch with me.”Sara Siegel
That, of course, conjures up images of mountains of shoes left behind by Holocaust victims. It appears in the performance and also references one of Nonna’s passions, and the privations of her younger self, struggling to survive in wartime Italy. All the shoes are red. “That’s from the Wizard of Oz,” Siegel chuckles. She says the cinematic reference fits the Nonna bill. “She looked like Judy Garland when she was young.”
Nonna, it appears, had an extroverted side to her, which came in handy for Siegel’s student movie. “The documentary began as a joint project. I made sure I kept the footage where she was aware of the presence of the camera,” Siegel explains. “I think it really helped us. I was behind the camera lens, and she was in front of it. She always wanted to be a movie star.” That also helped point Siegel in her creative direction. “We watched lots of movies together. That’s what we mainly did, after Nonna got to the stage when she could hardly speak. We watched movies we’d watched all our lives. And I learned to appreciate cinema during that period.”
The Wizard of Oz was a constant in the intergenerational viewing repertoire. “We watched musicals. There is the story of Dorothy who ran away from home and always wanted to find her way back home,” Siegel notes. The same applied to her grandmother, who met her American husband in Florence, Italy, and “escaped” with him to New York and later New Jersey. It was there that Dvora came into the world. Dvora and Marcella made aliyah in 1980. Siegel was born here, in 1991, an only child born to a single mother. Hence the marked linear relationship across three generations that is front and center in the documentary and will, no doubt, be imparted in the Jerusalem Theatre performances.
After Nonna-Marcella died, Siegel moved into her apartment-with-a-view, partly in an attempt to cling onto her grandmother’s presence. She says she wore her clothes and used her furniture and other everyday household items, while desperately striving to keep the place as spick and span as her fastidious predecessor. It was a losing battle from the outset. “I am not a tidy person,” she says. “I really did my best to keep things clean and orderly, but I couldn’t keep up.” Then again, she could afford to indulge in the odd compromise. “I noticed that her silver cutlery was only shiny on one side,” Siegel laughs.
It seems that Siegel is gradually starting to step out of Nonna’s shadow, and the latter’s furniture is being relocated to the stage for the performance. Perhaps it will never return to Nahlaot, and Siegel can finally carve her own niche in life and in her domestic surroundings.
But the past is always there – as, let’s face it, it is for us all – and features prominently in Nonna. “In the first half of the show, I revisit an old video of my mother when she was exactly my age. My 31st birthday is on the day of the first performance at the festival.” Individual identity demarcation lines are blurred. “You see my mother’s face but hear my voice.” The sensorial mix continues. “In the second half, it is about my grandmother. You don’t see her, but you hear her. What you will see is what she left behind her – the furniture, the window, my memories of her, recordings, her voice, her monologues, which I have stored in my head.”
In truth, Siegel had a plethora of material, memories, emotional baggage and experiences to feed off. Nonna comes across as something of a live wire given to emotional outbursts but also blessed with razor-sharp wit and dark humor.
That offers moments of grace, even of lightness, betwixt the heavy stuff. But it wasn’t just about having a laugh. “I think people who are survivors only really relax when they shift into survival mode.” That can lead to some testing situations. “When they are not in that state, they create it. She destroyed her life, kept us at arm’s length. She generated drama so she could slip into survival mode.”
The final chapter of Nonna’s life, which will feature in the show, was an island of calm in the choppy waters of her long eventful life. “In the last months, when her cancer became more vigorous, Nonna relaxed and softened, and suddenly allowed my mother to get close to her. They were months of strong love for all of us.” The familial world, says Siegel, became a safer and better structured place for all concerned. “Everything fell into place. Nonna knew who and what her enemy was. She used to say that, back then, there were enemies and friends, so it made sense. But after that, she never had friends, she only had anger. She was left with that.”
Even with all that pent-up emotion, and rage, Nonna’s joie de vivre shone through during her lifetime and seasons the performance. “She knew how to live,” says her granddaughter. She always said she wasn’t afraid of dying. She said what saved her, time and again, was her legs.” Nonna demonstrated her willpower, and her ability to keep on trucking, in the most dramatic of circumstances. “Once she fell and broke her leg, and then walked all the way home to tell us about it,” Siegel smiles.
The dramas continued. Nonna and her husband, who died a few years before her, took great pleasure in sitting in front of their living room window and surveying the panoramic view of Jerusalem. The armchair Nonna loved to sit in will find its way to the Jerusalem Theater stage. “She died at home right in front of her window. That is the window that, in all her fits of anger, she threatened to jump from.” It was a constant emotional tug-of-war. “She didn’t want to die. She fought for every breath towards the end until, at some point, I told her that it’s all right. That she can let go.”
Nonna may have moved on, but Siegel and Dvora, and anyone who catches any of the three festival shows, can benefit from some of Nonna’s hard-earned revelations and life wisdom. In the film, Nonna talks about her experiences during the Holocaust and notes that it was impossible to appreciate the severity of the situation in real time and that she could only digest it all in retrospect. The same could be said of the current project, and Siegel’s understanding of her grandmother four years on. “In the past few months I find myself repeatedly looking at all the material I have from her.”
It is not just a cud-chewing exercise. “I discover something new every time. Once I went off somewhere, maybe to the kitchen, and I left the camera running. Later I saw she’d left me a joke. She looked at the camera and stuck her tongue out.”
What a character! “Yes, my grandmother was really something. She was amazing, brilliant and so expressive. I think that had she not had her life experiences, she should have been Judy Garland.”
For tickets and more information about the Israel Festival: www.israel-festival.org