Boston theater puts Israeli playwrights in the spotlight

Boston theater puts Israeli playwrights in the spotlight

Guy Ben-Aharon’s Israeli Stage company exposes American audiences to thought-provoking plays from Israel

Ken Cheeseman (left) and Jeremiah Kissel in an Israeli Stage production of 'Ulysses on Bottles' (Paul Marotta)
Ken Cheeseman (left) and Jeremiah Kissel in an Israeli Stage production of 'Ulysses on Bottles' (Paul Marotta)

BOSTON – It all started with a grade school production of “Mary Poppins” when Guy Ben-Aharon was 10 years old. His family had relocated from Israel to Boston the year before when his father accepted a job here. As he recalls it 15 years later, a classmate encouraged him to join the cast of the classic 1960s kids musical. There was no turning back.

“It was the beginning of the end of any ambition to do anything else,” Ben-Aharon says with a chuckle, recalling his entrance onto the stage.

Today, the 25-year-old graduate of Emerson College is still pursuing his passion for drama, now from behind the scenes of Israeli Stage, a non-profit theater company that produces plays by contemporary Israeli playwrights. Launched five years ago while he was a still a student, Ben-Aharon now serves as its producing artistic director.

As Israeli Stage enters its sixth season – boasting a rare lineup of all female playwrights – it has earned a reputation as a theater company to watch. With an enviable roster of some of Boston’s most well established award-winning performers – as well as younger actors on the rise – Israeli Stage has drawn a growing and committed audience.

Guy Ben-Aharon (Nir Landau)
Guy Ben-Aharon (Nir Landau)

Along the way, Ben-Aharon has emerged as a respected, inventive voice in Boston’s theater scene and beyond. He’s been recognized with awards in the theater world and in Jewish circles, including being named as one of the top 18 influential young adults in Boston by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the region’s Jewish federation that is a sponsor of Israeli Stage.

Most Americans know of Israel only through headlines of the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ben-Aharon observes.

“We’re not here to defend Israel. We’re here to portray work by Israeli artists,” he asserts.

“The conversation [on the conflict] is so polarized. We put on plays to get people to think about Israel in a different way. Israel is a society that is complex, not black and white,” he says.

His novel idea – and his early success with engaging audiences with thought-provoking Israeli plays – attracted the attention of other international groups, leading to the establishment of in Boston German Stage, Austrian Stage and Swiss Stage.

‘We’re not here to defend Israel. We’re here to portray work by Israeli artists’

In selecting a wide range of plays, presented in staged readings and full productions, Ben-Aharon has tapped into a void in American theater by introducing audiences – as well as actors and directors – to plays that reflect the little-known but dynamic world of Israeli literature and theater. Writers whose works have been presented include A.B. Yehoshua, Gilad Evron and Savyon Liebrecht. Evron and Liebrecht were also playwrights-in-residence for the company.

Liebrecht’s “The Strawberry Girl,” kicked off the company’s sixth season this fall, with the North American premiere of the one-woman play with award-winning actress Nancy Carroll. The dramatic story, set in Poland during the Holocaust, was directed by Ben-Aharon. In addition to performances at many colleges in the region, “The Strawberry Girl” will tour in February to Atlanta’s Goethe Zentrum.

Publicity material for the 6th season of Israeli Stage (courtesy)
Publicity material for the 6th season of Israeli Stage (courtesy)

Upcoming performances include a second fully staged production of Anat Gov’s “Oh God,” about a psychologist (award-winning Maureen Keiller) whose newest client is God (Elliot Award winner Will Lyman). First performed as a staged reading in September 2013, it has proven to be a success for the company, touring to over 25 locations in six US states.

“Happy Ending,” another play by Gov, who died in 2011, closes the season.

Being exposed to a different political reality through the perspective of an artist is eye-opening, according to Melia Bensusson, an Obie Award-winning director who chairs the performing arts department at Emerson College, where she was Ben-Aharon’s advisor.

‘To understand what a country is going through, there’s no better place to understand that than theater’

“To hear Israeli playwrights speaking from their heart… is crucial,” she adds. Americans are not familiar with Israeli theater, she observes. “To understand what a country is going through, there’s no better place to understand that than theater,” she says.

Opening opportunities for American stage actors to engage in the work of international writers is a rare opportunity, Bensusson and Ben-Aharon concur.

As Ben-Aharon has delved deeply into contemporary Israeli literature, he’s come to cherish the relationships he’s developed with the writers, including Liebrecht, a German-born Israeli daughter of Holocaust survivors who has won numerous awards for her body of work. In addition to this season’s “The Strawberry Girl,” Israeli Stage has produced four of Liebrecht’s plays including the “The Banality of Love,” and “Apples from the Desert.”

Last season’s production of Evron’s “Ulysses on Bottles,” was a touchstone moment for the company. The starkly staged drama centers on the charged relationship between an Israeli Arab jailed for trying to deliver Russian literature to Gaza, his Israeli Jewish lawyer and a military officer. Produced in partnership with Arts Emerson, the provocative play attracted sold-out crowds to the Paramount Theater, a major venue in downtown Boston. The cast of notable actors included Jeremiah Kissel and Ken Cheeseman, in the role of the title character.

Guy Ben-Aharon leads a discussion on Alma Weich's 'Price Tag,' part of Israeli Stage's 6th season, at the Goethe-Institut Boston (Courtesy)
Guy Ben-Aharon leads a discussion on Alma Weich’s ‘Price Tag,’ part of Israeli Stage’s 6th season, at the Goethe-Institut Boston (Courtesy)

Ben-Aharon is looking forward to this season’s residency with Hanna Azoulay Hasfari as a rare chance to showcase the work of the Moroccan-born Israeli writer, introducing American audiences to the less familiar Sephardic culture.

As Israeli Stage productions tour more colleges throughout Boston and across the Northeast, Ben-Aharon says they are building new audiences of young theater-goers. It’s a stark contrast to his own early exposure to theater, Ben-Aharon says, recalling the frequent outings to the theater in Israel as he was growing up, and later, during summer visits with his grandparents.

“Theater for Israelis is like going to the movies,” he observed. His grandfather, a Holocaust survivor who became a construction worker, still attends plays regularly, he said.

‘Theater is a tool for dialogue and for understanding to build these bridges’

He expresses a measure of hope that in presenting plays that draw on the gray areas of the human experience, Israeli Stage is provoking thoughtful conversation and offering a counterbalance to the divisive debates that dominate the conversation about Israel at many colleges.

“Theater is a tool for dialogue and for understanding to build these bridges,” he says. “As citizens of the world, artists have a responsibility to do that.”

“I couldn’t be happier,” Ben-Aharon says of his theater life today. “The joy I have as a director, I can choose anything I want.”

He especially appreciates the high level of engagement by Israeli Stage audiences who are open about what they don’t like and what they do enjoy.

“That’s the biggest compliment I can take home.”

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