Zvi Sahar collects old items.
He loves flea markets, but two of his favorite collectibles are from his grandmother’s kitchen: a hand mixer and an old-fashioned ice cream scoop. Sahar also loves to put old and unwanted objects to good use in his PuppetCinema productions. Last year he used a flea market find, an old canvas army kit bag from the 1967 Six Day War, as the lead character in his multidisciplinary “Salt of the Earth,” based on Israeli novelist Amos Kenan’s “The Road to Ein Harod.”
This week Sahar returns to the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, with another PuppetCinema evening featuring his inventive puppetry, live actors and a camera crew that projects studied and close-up scenes of the puppets in action.
His “Suddenly,” based on a short story collection by Israeli best-selling author Etgar Keret, was developed in 2016 during a residency at the university’s School of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies. The performances, this Friday and Saturday, mark the U.S. premiere, coming just prior to shows at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York next week.
Sahar, who trained as an actor, started his theater career performing Shakespeare, Chekhov and other classic and contemporary works. Then he discovering puppetry.
“What fascinated me the most with puppets is making something [inanimate] come alive,” he said in an interview from his Ramat Gan home. “This is why I don’t see it as a kids or adult medium. It’s the same for everyone.”
He transforms found objects, like that army sack or something as mundane as a bag of cornflakes, and creates a simulacrum, representing the people, places and things that help him tell stories.
“An actor … presents what he feels,” Sahar noted, while “the puppet invites you to feel what it feels.
When a puppet gives you a gesture or a movement, that encourages you, the audience, to fill it with emotion.” That means puppets, unlike actors, are a blank slate, “a very special medium that can talk to different kinds of audiences. Audiences like to both experience something inanimate [coming] to life and like to put their own feelings in it.”
Inspired by the ancient Japanese genre called Bunraku, which traditionally requires three puppeteers to manipulate a single puppet, Sahar’s creations are surprisingly lifelike characters. But as important, if not more important than the puppets, are the stories the director tells.
“The main thing I am is a storyteller,” he said, “whether I’m acting scenes, directing scenes, making puppetry scenes, music scenes … the goal is to tell a story to the audience.”
In “Suddenly,” the story is told through a narrator and two actors in Hebrew; English surtitles are projected on the screen.
Unlike “Salt of the Earth,” Sahar said “Suddenly” is less overtly Israeli and far more universal. “Even though the story feels very light, very free form and casual, the drama underneath is devastating,” Sahar said.
But there is a notable similarity.
As in “Salt,” the world Keret created and Sahar replicated on stage and video is violent, even dystopian.
On the surface, there are scenes about a man going out for coffee, for example, but underneath, Sahar noted, “There is a deeply antagonistic point of view on life.” The fantastical world Keret imagined for “Suddenly, A Knock on the Door,” his collection, features sardonic tales; in one, a woman wakes up and unzips her boyfriend to find another non-Jewish man underneath. Then there’s a bit about a cheeseburger restaurant called Cheesus Christ. These odd snapshots provided visual and dramatic inspiration for Sahar.
At heart, the actor turned puppeteer and artistic visionary is simply — and proudly — a storyteller. For his army service, he was a tour guide instructing Israeli soldiers on the history of Jerusalem — all 5,000-plus years. That’s when he discovered his love of story.
“I remember a very specific day when I couldn’t take them somewhere,” Sahar said. “So we sat down and I just told them stories. That’s when I realized it was all about stories. We didn’t even need to go and see the place … the most important thing was the story.”
“Suddenly” by PuppetCinema, Dec. 1-2 at 8 p.m., Kogod Theatre, The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, 8270 Alumni Drive, University of Maryland, College Park. Tickets are $10-$25. Call 301- 405-2787 or visit theclarice.umd.edu.
Some speak to God through prayer and study. Others connect through their art. In an adaptation of the popular 1972 novel “My Name Is Asher Lev” for the stage, this conflict of sacred prayer and sacred creativity and the pull between the two keeps father and son, mother and child, community and individual societal norms in at odds. The production runs at 1st Stage in Tysons through Dec. 17.
Local playwright Aaron Posner telescoped Chaim Potok’s range-y novel of the same name into a taut 90-minute one act in 2009, a decade after he did the same for “The Chosen,” another Potok work that draws back the curtain on the insular mid-20th-century chasidic lifestyle in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Director Nick Olcott takes audiences into the Halacha-driven Lev household, where expectations for young Asher run high to continue his father’s rabbinic path. But Asher has a gift. His drawings and paintings puzzle his parents — father, Aryeh, who travels frequently on Jewish missions to Eastern Europe and the then-Soviet Union and mother Rivkah, who encourages but doesn’t understand her young son’s talent.
When Potok penned “Asher Lev” in 1972, the Holocaust was an ever-present shadow hovering over American Jews, especially the ultra-religious remnant communities from Eastern Europe. The novelist was among the first to paint a clear-eyed picture of this little-known and understood community, which follows stringencies and maintains dress customs from 18th-century Poland. And Potok’s novels, among them “The Chosen,” posited that the Jews, even the tightly knit Chasidim overcame the trauma and decimation of the Holocaust to re-create their communities under the auspices of America’s tenets of religious freedom. The subtext: not giving Hitler a posthumous victory, an idea posited by philosopher and Reform Rabbi Emil Fackenheim.
There’s little sentiment, though, in Posner’s script and Olcott’s production, which narrows the mostly first-person narrative, the characters and young Lev’s evolution from a naïve chasidic yeshiva boy into a world-acclaimed painter, prized for the complexity of his subjects and for his rendering of crucifixions.
Along the way, Lev has had to leave behind the prohibitions in Jewish law that would restrict his artistry, while remaining true to many of the commandments and customs he was raised to follow. It began with painting subjects other than pretty nature scenes. His mentor, Jacob Kahn, a blunt, elderly painter, is corralled to tutor his subject on the ways of the art world, among them figure drawings of nudes and a study of the importance of crucifixion paintings in Western art.
Painting is as necessary for life as breathing is, Asher says, fervently appealing to his father. Posner’s script takes the audience back into Asher’s childhood, demonstrating the importance of his upbringing in making him the artistic force he has become. The problem is that this device requires an adult actor to inhabit the body and spirit of a child, and here Lucas Beck doesn’t succeed in making young Asher both believable and interesting.
Playing his Asher’s mother, Rivka, Hyla Matthews is underwhelming; when she hits a deep depressive episode that shifts the family dynamic, she, too, is less than believable. Her taut cheekbones and angular build, though, have been used well in framing her like a Modigliani in the living room window. It’s a telling gestural touch: a woman of that sect and that era homebound, by tradition and societal constraints. But she doesn’t provide the heartbreak of deep loneliness that the novel suggests.
Andy Brownstein provides the stern presence that patriarch Aryeh Lev demands, and his Jewish New York accent is most believable (although this note is coming from a non-native New Yorker). Playwright Posner scripted the work for three actors, so Brownstein, too, takes on the role of the Rebbe, the community’s religious leader, who doesn’t only guide the spirit, but all familial and communal decisions.
As the Rebbe, Brownstein allows for a depth of understanding of this soulful temperament, and as Asher’s uncle, Yaakov, he relishes jovial worldliness.
But as Asher’s mentor, the secular painter Jacob Kahn, Brownstein excels, providing a rich snapshot of an artistic force who is driven to pass along his hard-fought knowledge and skill to survive and thrive in the art world. A scene where Asher narrates the aphorisms Kahn peppers his talented student with becomes a user’s manual for all artists, and it suggests that novelist Potok fought hard to find a comfortable center between a religious life and an artistic one, both of which require discipline, a bit of asceticism and lifelong commitment.
“My Name Is Asher Lev” on stage, too, wrestles with the father-son dynamic, but here, both actors are far too amiable to incorporate enough discord — restrained or overblown — into what should be an elemental conflict within the play. Father-love and filial-rebellion have long been fundamental tropes in Jewish texts, dating back to Abraham and Isaac. But here, while there is divergence, Potok was aiming for a clash of cultures and in the book that rift is cataclysmic. In 1st Stage’s rendering and retelling of this tale, it feels like a mere quarrel.
“My Name Is Asher Lev,” through Dec. 17, 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Rod, Tysons. Tickets $15-$33. Call 703-854-1856 or visit 1ststagetysons.org.
There’s a long and poignant story behind the T-shirt that Ari’el Stachel often wears these days. It says, in Hebrew letters, “Totzeret Teman” — “Product of Yemen.” The unexpected juxtaposition of two cultures, Israeli and Arab, is as fascinating and complex as Stachel himself.
Stachel, 26, is an actor and singer making his Broadway debut in “The Band’s Visit,” a charming new musical starring Tony Shalhoub (“Monk”) and the rising star Katrina Lenk. The play is based on the 2007 award-winning Israeli movie about an Egyptian police band stranded in a tiny (and fictional) Israeli village in the Negev Desert.
Stachel plays Haled, an Egyptian trumpeter, who — like his fellow band mates — quietly connects with his Jewish hosts during a long night of eating, flirting, roller skating (at a disco, no less) and, of course, music making.
The show’s theme of how Arabs and Jews come to terms with each other is perhaps not nearly as dramatic as Stachel’s own journey of coming to terms with himself. The tall, dark-skinned performer spent nearly a third of his life telling people he was half African-American.
In fact, Stachel is the California-born son of an Israeli-Yemeni father and an Ashkenazi mother from New York.
“My father’s parents came to Israel in the 1950s,” he explained, “and my dad was born in an immigrant absorption tent city near the town of Hadera. When he was 24, he followed a woman he’d met on a kibbutz to the U.S. and ended up in California, where he met my mom while they were Israeli folk dancing. He was the only one in his family to leave Israel.”
The family name in Yemen was Garama, but became Yeshayahu in Israel. Stachel’s parents divorced when he was young, and he opted to use his mother’s Ashkenazic last name.
“It was just one of the many ways I avoided my identity,” he said ruefully.
That struggle began at a Jewish day school in Berkeley, where Stachel was raised.
“In third grade, someone told me I was too black to be Jewish,” he recalled. “In sixth grade, I switched to a public school, with maybe nine students of color there out of 900. I started to see that I was perceived as black, so I re-created my identity as an African American; all my friends were black.”
Stachel smiled as he recalled visiting his best buddy’s home, where “his grandmother would treat me like a black kid, cooking me soul food. For the first time, I felt like I was part of a community without any reservation. I felt most comfortable and accepted through this African American grandmother.”
By high school, said Stachel, “I started avoiding being seen in public with my father. I didn’t want to be seen with somebody who looked like an Arab.”
Only in private did the conflicted teenager embrace his heritage, listening to the Israeli-Yemeni singer Tsion Golan, eating his favorite food — the Yemeni Israeli pastry jachnun — and often visiting his family in Israel for a month at a time. As a baby, his first word was “balon,” Hebrew for balloon.
“Hebrew was spoken exclusively in my father’s house — he only spoke with his new partner in Hebrew, which is where my ‘fluent-adjacency’ comes from,” Stachel said.
Stachel didn’t have a bar mitzvah in California, but “I was in Israel during the last week of my 13th year, and my uncle, who is more religious, was dismayed. He set up a Yemeni bar mitzvah for me four days before I turned 14.”
The deep love Stachel had for his family made his continuing disavowal of their backgrounds impossible to reconcile.
“I knew I wanted to do something public, either as an NBA player or an actor,” he said, “and I remember looking at myself in the mirror in eighth grade and thinking, ‘How on earth can I do that and still pretend that I’m not Middle Eastern?’”
At 15, realizing he wouldn’t make it in pro basketball, Stachel’s mother urged him to try out for his school musical.
“I got the role, in which I sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to a pear,” he recalled, “and my mom said, ‘You know, you have a voice!’” Stachel switched to an arts school, honed his talents, and moved to New York in 2009 to attend New York University’s musical theater program.
The watershed moment in both Stachel’s personal and professional lives came when he first read the script for “The Band’s Visit” in 2015, which opened off-Broadway the following year. Reading the character of Haled, the handsome Egyptian musician who is obsessed with the jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, “I knew immediately that it needed to be my role.”
It took the show’s creative team seven auditions by Stachel over nine months to arrive at the same conclusion. There were moments of deep doubt and frustration, the actor acknowledged.
“Looking at my parents, seeing where I come from, there was this feeling that there’s no way my dreams are ever going to come true,” he said. “But over the course of those nine months, I started to believe in myself, and by the final audition it was just mine.”
The Atlantic Theater Company’s off-Broadway production of “The Band’s Visit,” with music and lyrics by David Yazbek (“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “The Full Monty”) and book by Itamar Moses (another son of Israeli parents), earned rave reviews. And for Stachel, who garnered Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel Award nominations for best featured actor in a musical, it changed everything.
“The role allows me to exist as myself, proudly, as a Middle Eastern person,” Stachel said. “For eight or 10 years of my life, I couldn’t tell people I was of Yemeni descent without breaking into a cold sweat.
Now, because of the visibility of this role, because people are accepting us with open arms, I can be myself. I get to wear this baseball cap [offstage] which says ‘shalom, salaam, and peace.’ I feel like I straddle all these identities.”
During weeks of previews on Broadway, Stachel said the play has attracted sold-out audiences and international attention.
“I’m able to connect with young kids in the Middle East on Twitter and Instagram who tell me they’re feeling represented,” he said. “A Palestinian girl came to the show, ran past the gate afterwards and hugged me, saying the same thing.”
As for the future of this Yemeni-Ashkenazi-Jewish-Californian-American actor, Stachel is eager to tell his personal story, and those of others.
“My experience of the world was shaped very much by the way I looked,” he said. “Now I feel that having this distinctive identity gives me an opportunity to shed light on the diverse lives of Middle Eastern people. I feel like I have a birthright to play these roles.”
—JTA News and Features
Joel Markowitz, a connoisseur of and tastemaker for the Washington region’s theater scene who founded and edited the DC Metro Theater Arts website, died on Nov. 7 in Bethesda. He was 60. His brother Bruce Markowitz, said the cause of death was ALS — also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The theater writer was diagnosed in March.
Much of Markowitz’s professional life was dedicated to the promotion and criticism of the area’s performing arts, from the time he began freelancing after college in the 1980s to 2012, when he and his older brother Bruce founded DCMTA as a hub for theater news and reviews that ultimately expanded to cover New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
The fourth son of Cantor Morris and Faye Markowitz, Joel Markowitz grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., where he took to the arts at a young age with the encouragement of his father. He went on to attend Syracuse University, majoring in English and journalism, before moving to Washington in 1983 and making a name for himself initially as an interviewer of prominent theater personalities and the founder of Ushers Theater Group, which organized theatergoing trips up and down the East Coast.
But his interest wasn’t only in large productions. He was a champion of the entire form, promoting everything from high school productions to dinner theater, his brother said.
“He was a real champion of what he called the little guy,” Bruce Markowitz said. “He worked 18 hours a day, every day. And he kept working almost up until the last day of his life. He was totally dedicated to the site.”
Joel Markowitz’s passion for the performing arts was rivaled only by his love for his hometown Buffalo Sabres and Buffalo Bills. He played goalie for his high school’s hockey team and remained a devotee of the sport through his adult life. And he and his brother attended the Super Bowl together in California in 1993, watching the Bills fall to the Dallas Cowboys, 52-17.
“We had a great time together, even though we wound up crying in our soup,” Bruce Markowitz said.
He described Joel Markowitz as a “loving and loyal brother” and a “tremendous uncle” to his nine nieces and nephews.
Joel Markowitz was an avid listener of cantorial music, and amassed a collection of cantorial recordings, according to Bruce.
Ari Roth, founding artistic director of Washington’s Mosaic Theater Company, described Joel Markowitz as a voracious student of Jewish culture and tradition.
“What I’ll always remember is Joel’s enthusiasm as a theater goer and in Jewish culture in general,” Roth said. “Joel was a very learned person, and his enthusiasm was completely non-elitist. There was no snobbishness and no hierarchy. He saw the theater as a pure value.”
Joel Markowitz also helped to launch the careers of numerous writers and performers, his brother said. DC Metro Theater Arts’ oldest writer is 90-year-old Richard Seff, a retired stage actor whom Markowitz had encouraged to write four years ago.
After Joel Markowitz’s diagnosis and was given DC Theatre Scene’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Seff wrote him a letter. “He said that Joel had given him a whole new career and made him feel young,” Bruce said.
The next day, a 23-year-old actor whom Joel Markowitz had pushed to move to Washington and pursue his career, came by to thank him for his encouragement.
“I said, ‘Joel, in 24 hours you’ve had a man who’s 90 thanking you for everything you’ve done for him and a young man who’s 23 doing the same,’” Bruce Markowitz said. “How many people can say that?”
Joel Markowitz is survived by his five brothers: Rabbi Chanan Markowitz, Bruce Markowitz, Stuart Markowitz, David Markowitz and Saul Markowitz.
The last ship to leave Nazi Germany in 1939 carried 937 passengers on a voyage to Cuba, just as Europe was being overtaken by Hitler’s advancing army. The S.S. St. Louis arrived in the Havana harbor, where only 28 passengers were allowed to disembark. The rest remained at sea, turned away from Cuba and then the United States, only to return to Europe where 254 of those refugees perished in the Holocaust.
This back story sets the scene for Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz’s “Sotto Voce,” the season opener at Theater J, at the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, that touches on the Cuban-Jewish experience while the shadow of the world refugee crisis lingers.
Set at the turn of the millennium, “Sotto Voce” is an unusual love story in which the principals don’t meet face to face. German matriarch Bemadette lives in a New York City high rise that she never leaves, comfortably ensconced in her upscale penthouse with a view of the park. A successful novelist, Bemedette writes and banters with her housekeeper, Lucila. Into this tightly defined universe, Saquiel turns up and turns her well-defined world upside down.
A Cuban student researching the histories of the passengers of the St. Louis, Saquiel seeks to interview Bemedette about her long ago relationship with a Jewish passenger on the ship, Ariel Strauss. An air of mystery surrounds Bemedette’s long past love affair and whether she has any information that will be of interest to this research. They correspond via email, he addressing her as “Dear Writer,” she, him as “Dear Student,” and via voicemail messages, spoken by the actors onstage.
Brigid Cleary, with her patrician air and aquiline nose, carries herself with impeccable grace as Bemadette. Her German accent, ageless smile and excitable demeanor when faced with bad or pushy manners are thoughtfully played.
As Saquiel, Andres Talero cuts a handsome figure in his slim black jeans and black leather jacket. Talero gives his character a slightly bad-boy undertone, one that both women, the older Bemadette and the younger Lucila can’t resist.
In the May-December phone romance, Cruz demonstrates how important language is in the game of attraction. As Lucila, Desiree Marie Velez is both subservient and bold, astutely understanding her boss’s foibles and demands and sharing intimate secrets and playfully teasing her. It’s a friendship, but Bemadette remains boss.
Director Jose Carrasquillo is no stranger to Theater J; his previous credits including “After the Fall” and “The Body of An American.” Cruz’s play, though, is a challenge. It takes place in a single room, Bemadette’s living room.
Frequently, the outsider Saquiel communicates via phone or email and on a stage with no props, just a desk and a few chairs, Carrasquillo places the actor in varying spots, making these transitions to technological conversations via phone or email harder to discern and squelching the flow. Cruz is neither a naturalistic nor realistic playwright; thus it seems that a little more imagination in enlivening these distinct conversations could assist in the flow of what is, at times, a clunky evening.
While the story carries its own intrigue, the larger issue of immigration policy — during World War II and today — sometimes takes a back seat. Saquiel suffers from a U.S. immigration regulation that prohibits him from reentering the country. Lucila, too, lives under the looming specter of tightened immigration policies. Playwright Cruz has both these characters express their disappointment and discouragement but, unlike those immigrants 58 years ago on the St. Louis, neither returning to Cuba nor Colombia merits a death sentence.
Many of our Jewish institutions of late in the United States are supporting the cause of fair and open immigration policies, placing signs on synagogue front lawns, participating in marches and, recently, “adopting” refugee families to help them acclimate and become American. Yet, “Sotto Voce” is a soft sell. HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, has found new voice and new purpose by extending its mission and its reach to refugees of other religious backgrounds and cultures. It is a co-sponsor of the production.
The title of the play derives from Italian and means a low or soft voice, a trait Bemadette found attractive in her conversations with young admirer Saquiel. Yet, “Sotto Voce” suggests a message for our time that needs to ring out, not whisper.
“Sotto Voce,” by Nilo Cruz, through Oct. 29. Theater J, Edlavitch DCJCC, 1529 16th St. NW¸ Washington. Tickets: $39-$69. Call 202-777-3210 or visit edcjcc.org/center-for-arts/theater-j/ for information.