It’s easy to get tongue-tied speaking Shakespeare’s English, and it’s even tougher to render it clearly when distracted by rocket fire and family members fighting in Gaza. Those were just a few of the challenges faced by Jerusalem’s Theater in the Rough company this summer.
The community theater group, which premiered its production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: In Motion” last Thursday, is staging ten nights of the lighthearted romantic comedy set in ancient Greece. Founded in 2010 by a group of North American immigrants, the company presents its outdoor interpretation of the Bard’s work each August, moving players and audience around the expansive grassy areas of the capital’s Bloomfield Gardens.
This year, however, the play was produced during what has turned out to be a difficult summer. Throughout the months of rehearsals, the cast and production team were severely distracted by the Israel-Gaza conflict.
“I began calling the show ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or: How to Put on a Show When Nobody Can Focus,’” said Natan Skop, 24, the co-founder of Theater in the Rough, who also plays both Oberon and the Duke of Athens in the show.
It was indeed difficult to focus on lines and staging scenes, said the actors. Everyone was constantly checking the news on their smartphones, and sometimes sirens interrupted scene practices, even in Jerusalem. One of the actors, Tamar Naggan, lives down south in Omer, and traveled 220 kilometers each week for rehearsals, leaving her kids back home.
Toby Trachtman, 23, who plays Demetrius in the play, had his mind on his younger brother, a member of a tank unit who was in Gaza for the duration.
“It was quite stressful,” said Trachtman, whose wife, Tamara Elashvili Trachtman (Hermia) has a leading role in the play. “We were always thinking about my brother. My wife and I missed the first dress rehearsal because we were in the south bringing donations to the soldiers.”
It’s been an interesting season, said Beth Steinberg, the director. The cast held many of the rehearsals in her house and office, rather than in the park.
“I realized that we just had to go on with the show and hope for the best,” said Steinberg.
Despite the difficulties, they were still able to pull the production together, said Skop. It helped that the 72-hour ceasefire between Israel and Hamas began just two days before opening night.
There were some 100 people present on the first night, reveling in two hours of the actors’ well-rehearsed rendition of Shakespeare’s humorous but intricate love story.
Despite the lack of lighting and microphones in the park setting, the company filled every moment of the performance, which was highlighted by a capella singing and dramatic, whimsical costumes by Bayla Lewis, including elaborate masks, feathered tunics, and fanciful crowns made of branches that lit up as twilight fell.
“You need to see the play more than once, otherwise you miss so many details,” said Penina Beede, the 19-year-old stage manager, who immigrated to Israel in June and spent the summer working on the production.
Beede said she loves that the play takes place in several different parts of the garden, as the play shifts locations at each act. She recommended paying attention to what’s going on offstage, since the actors tend to frolic with one another, or wander and mumble in character, even when not acting in a scene unfolding in front of the audience.
Given the summer’s events, the company also added a few of their own inside jokes. At the end of the final scene, actor Ira Skop (Nick Bottom) entered wearing an overturned colander as headgear, and another actor sitting in the audience shouted in Hebrew, “He has a kipat barzel!” referring to the Iron Dome, the Israeli missile interception system. Actors and viewers alike burst into laughter.
Theater is all about those kinds of moments, said Steinberg, adding that they never thought about abandoning the production.
“I believe that we need theater at all times, also in war time,” she said. “Culture is deeply important – we can’t live without it. We can express our fears, our concerns, and our anxiety through theater. Theater is a gift.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: In Motion, August 11, 13, 14, 17, 18, 20, 21, at 5:30 pm. Seating is on the grass and the show is free, with a suggested donation of NIS 30. Entrance is from Bloomfield Gardens, behind the King David Hotel, as well as through the parking lots on Emile Botta Street and Mishkenot Sha’ananim.