Israeli Stage tackles tough issues in translation

GGuy Ben-Aharon says staged readings are “an incredible platform for dialogue.”
Photo by Esra Rotthoff

Guy Ben-Aharon wants to change the cultural conversation in the United States.

He’s doing it by bringing Israeli plays to diverse audiences, both within the Jewish community and beyond. Theater, he believes, can facilitate dialogue, introduce new ideas, and open viewers’ minds.

“The power of theater is a shared emotional experience. You get into a room with a group of people you don’t know and you go through an emotional experience together,” the 26-year-old founder and director of Boston-based Israeli Stage, which is now in its seventh year, said last week.

On Feb. 21, Israeli Stage will come to the University of Maryland, College Park with a reading of Yakir Eliahu Vaknin’s play “Fertile.” This follows last year’s visit with a thoughtful comedy, “Oh, God.”
“Fertile” is based on the true story of Israeli actress Zohar Meidan, who was born without a uterus. It challenges perceptions and, filled with both tragic and comic moments, encourages a second look at the simplistic understanding of gender, identity and womanhood.

“It is the perfect way to get strangers to talk to one another,” Ben-Aharon said. “Americans are not the most chatty group of people when they don’t know each other.” The reading of “Fertile” is sponsored by the university’s Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies. Ben-Aharon anticipates a lively conversation that will explore gender and fertility issues, femininity, identity and outsider status — all themes in Vaknin’s play.

“I thought the script had such a rich sense of character and story and it’s rare to find such rich character in one-person shows,” the director said. He also has made it “American” by casting Ramona Alexander, an African-American actor, to play the multiple characters with voices and accents more familiar to American audiences.

Israeli stage was created out of Ben-Aharon’s boredom with classes at Emerson College in Boston during his first two years as a theater major. Pushed by an adviser, he organized a few staged readings. Within a year, Israeli Stage was born, with the goal of bringing relevant Israeli plays to American audiences, particularly younger audiences in university settings.

By next month, the fledgling theater troupe will have introduced 25 Israeli plays to audiences across seven states and brought four major Israeli playwrights to the Boston area for a series of lectures, master classes and workshop productions.

In March, Joshua Sobol, who penned important Hebrew works including “Ghetto” and “The Jerusalem Syndrome,” will workshop his newest play, which is based on the life of King David, in Boston.

Each year, Ben-Aharon reads dozens of scripts and travels to Tel Aviv, where he was born and his parents still live, to take in the latest works on stages throughout Israel. He cites a 2016 study with the astonishing statistic that 40 percent of Israelis attend live theater. With a plethora of new plays and numerous theaters scattered throughout the country, his choices are many, ranging from comedies to issue-related works, tragedies and political plays, though he seeks a balance for the season.

Once he settles on a season of plays, the translations are commissioned. He seeks out translators who can not only represent the text in English, but also the slang, the accents and the rhythm of Hebrew dialogue.
“We have an interesting model: we tour staged readings,” noted Ben-Aharon. “Our staged readings are an incredible way to showcase the work of the playwrights and to get these scripts and stories out in front of audiences. It’s economical but it’s also a way to focus on the language. And it’s proved to be an incredible platform for dialogue, which is something I think we all know is missing from our society right now.”

And Israeli Stage isn’t only for the Jewish and Israeli communities. As Ben-Aharon said, “People think we always deal with Jewish issues. Yes, we do a lot of that. But we’re hoping to attract all types of audiences. Israeli Stage is about exploring life’s difficult questions through an Israeli lens and that’s not something that is open to only one community. I think it behooves people of different backgrounds to come and explore these questions together and, perhaps, gain a better understanding of their own situation from the play.”

“Fertile,” staged reading by Israeli Stage featuring Ramona Alexander, Feb. 21, 7 p.m. Ulrich Hall, Tawes Fine Arts Building, University of Maryland, College Park. Tickets are free, but reservations are required, israelistage.com/event/fertile-university-of-maryland.

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