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Beit Leissin.(Photo by: GUY YECHIELI)
Bringing it home
By BARRY DAVIS
09/13/2019
Beit Lessin celebrates 40 years of culture with a new beginning.
Some people believe that turning 40 is the dreaded harbinger of a gradual slippery decline into more sedentary middle years and – perish the thought – old age. Then again, you might get yourself a new lease of life as you leave your early years, using your hard-earned experience to fuel ever richer and more rewarding enterprise.

Beit Lessin is nearing the end of its fourth decade of ongoing bustling, kicking, shouting and entertaining endeavor and, at last, at its relative advanced phase of life has a spanking, sparkling new home of its own.

The official opening took place last week, attended by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who was praised by one and all for his efforts to help the company set up its very own state of the art stall. And there was a veritable Who’s Who of the local thespian community in the audience in the cozier 380-capacity lower hall, as well as some of the current members of the Beit Lessin actors’ roster who were primed to showcase some of the forthcoming season’s offerings on the stage of the larger 830-seat upstairs auditorium. The renovation work cost NIS 150 million, largely financed by the municipality along with some governmental assistance.

As one of the leading triad of the national theatrical community, along with Habima and Cameri, it is hard to believe that Beit Lessin had to wait for so long to get a home base. It started out back in 1980 as the theatrical arm of the Histadrut labor federation. That was in a bygone era, when the Histadrut was a powerhouse on the national political and social stage, and could engage in a wide range of activities, including in cultural realms. 

The company put on its first shows from cramped facilities on Weizmann Street, not far from Lessin Street, hence the name. I caught quite a few productions there in the latter half of the ‘80s, and recall getting quality entertainment in fun, intimate surroundings. It was hardly a stately berth but that didn’t bother the consumers.

As long-serving artistic director and general manager Tzipi Pines noted in her celebratory address, the newly refurbished, sequined building has settled at a more appropriate, heartbeat spot. “Now, for the first time, Beit Lessin has its own home,” said the evergreen 75 year old. “This is a permanent dwelling on Frishman Street, on the corner of Dizengoff Street. This location could not have offered a better reflection of the centrality of the theater to the Israeli experience – Frishman on the corner of Dizengoff, the heart of Dizengoff.”

PINES KNOWS what she’s on about. She happily recounted her own earliest theatrical memories, and how they have carried her through to where she is today. “It is a great honor to work in this profession, with which I fell in love at the age of five when my mother, a Holocaust survivor, who did not speak Hebrew, took me to see a performance of The Blue Bird by [Nobel Prize-winning Belgian writer Maurice] Maeterlinck, at the Amal Cinema in Kfar Saba.” It was love at first sight for the youngster. “The blue light under the curtain, the music that played as the curtain went up, opened up for me an enchanted and fantastic world. To this day, every time a new production starts up, I stand in the auditorium behind the last row, racked by nerves, tensely waiting for the magic, the first emotional date between the show and the audience.”

Emceed by the 81-year-old Grand Dame of Israeli showbiz, Rivka Michaeli, the opening ceremony served as a trip down memory lane for Michaeli, Pines and celebrated 69-year-old actress Yona Elian-Keshet. Michaeli, naturally, provided the audience with plenty of laughs, although she has increasingly displayed her talents on the more serious side of theater.

Michaeli stars in a couple of productions in Beit Lessin’s first season at its new home: Haglula (The Pill), a new comedy written by Ronnie Sinai directed by Roi Segev; as well as Hayoreshet (The Heiress), a drama written by Goren Agmon and directed by Alon Ofir.

As to be expected, there was an abundance of mutual backslapping at the festive event, and the audience was regaled with some emotive and evocative tales. Elian-Keshet has enjoyed a longstanding relationship with the theater and with its artistic director. There was some good-natured jibing bandied about as the veteran popular performer noted Pines’s prickly demeanor and her dedication to her job, and how far she has brought the company.

Elian-Keshet first trod the Beit Lessin boards in 1990 after quitting her job with Habima, the national theater company. The then thirty-something actress had already cemented her place as a fixture on the national entertainment scene, both in theater and on the silver screen. Even so, Elian-Keshet took something of a leap into the unknown as she tried to get her one-woman show off the ground.

PINES EXTENDED a helping hand. “Two conversations defined my path from that point,” Elian-Keshet noted, “one with Tzipi who, at the time, was the manager of the Beersheba Theater. She told me not to worry and that I could act whenever I wanted.” When Pines took over at Beit Lessin in 1993, the one-woman show moved with her to Tel Aviv. “Beit Lessin took me and my show in, and it became a great success.”

Elian-Keshet left Habima after she refused to sign a tenure contract, and says she has always taken a free-flowing approach to her work, moving on from one production to another. She also scotched rumors that recently circulated about her health. Following a recent stint at Ichilov Hospital there were media reports about life-threatening ailments, and even one that said she had – to quote a feted Monty Python sketch – already passed on and gone to meet her maker. Elian-Keshet went to town on the rumor mill and, tongue in cheek, promised us she would soon return to the stage “by October.”

There is plethora of high-grade fare lined up for the new season, with plenty of A-listers in the mix. Popular comic Avi Kushnir is currently fronting a new comedy called Abdullah Schwartz by Rami Vered, directed by Roni Pinkovitch, with Anat Waxman and Efrat Boimold also in the lineup.

Elian-Keshet will, indeed, be back in action when she alternates with Sandra Saddeh in Australian writer Andrew Bovell’s drama Things I Know to Be True. The cast also includes celebrated old hand Gadi Yagil, as well as Ido Rosenberg and Yael Vackstein. The September 26 slot features English subtitles, as do several other shows dotted through the season, including Mishpachach Hama (A Warm Family), a comedy penned by late playwright Anat Gov and starring 71-year-old comedienne Tiki Dayan, with Pinkovitch in the director’s seat for this one, too. Yotam Kushnir – son of the aforementioned Avi – is also in the cast alongside seasoned thespian Limor Goldstein.

Other standouts in the current program include I due Gemelli Veneziani (The Two Venetian Twins) by eighteenth-century Italian writer Carlo Goldoni, directed by Udi Ben Moshe; Tony Award-winning Oslo by JT Rogers, with Goldstein and Dov Navon, and Effes Beyachasei Enosh (Zero Motivation), by Oren Yaakobi and based on the award-winning film of the same name by Talya Lavie. The November 16 performance has English subtitles. And Pines will get a chance to relive that momentous childhood event when The Blue Bird gets another airing later in the year.

There will be guided tours of the new building as part of the Open House program.

For tickets and more information: lessin.co.il.
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