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No strings attached: Puppet fest may offer free rapid COVID testing at entrance

Annual Jerusalem event at Liberty Bell Park will celebrate new cultural complex, and festival’s 30th year

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

  • 'Hugo Sheli' is one of the performances at the upcoming Jerusalem Puppet Festival, August 22-26, 2021 (Courtesy Kfir Bolotin)
    'Hugo Sheli' is one of the performances at the upcoming Jerusalem Puppet Festival, August 22-26, 2021 (Courtesy Kfir Bolotin)
  • 'Missing Faces - Live' by Iris Erez is one of the performances at the upcoming Jerusalem Puppet Festival, August 22-26, 2021 (Courtesy Orly Erez Lachubesek)
    'Missing Faces - Live' by Iris Erez is one of the performances at the upcoming Jerusalem Puppet Festival, August 22-26, 2021 (Courtesy Orly Erez Lachubesek)
  • 'Invaders,' one of the works being performed at the Jerusalem Puppet Festival, August 22-26, 2021 (Courtesy Virginie Meigne)
    'Invaders,' one of the works being performed at the Jerusalem Puppet Festival, August 22-26, 2021 (Courtesy Virginie Meigne)

When the 30th Jerusalem Puppet Festival opens August 22, the big news accompanying this beloved celebration of puppetry and visual theater may be the complimentary rapid COVID-19 tests offered at the entrance, rather than the brand-new complex constructed at the corner of Jerusalem’s Liberty Bell Park.

“We’re business as usual, as much as possible,” said Shahar Marom, the festival director. “We need rapid testing for the unvaccinated, and we’ll pay for it, unless the government offers. Israeli society has to go in this direction, because how can we live otherwise?”

Working with Magen David Adom emergency services, Israel opened 120 rapid testing stations this week, offering results in 15 minutes and a 24-hour Green Pass from the Health Ministry for NIS 52 ($16).

“We’ll have responses in 15 minutes, and then this will be a protected space, with a bracelet on everyone who’s in here,” said Marom.

“It’s like having security guards,” he added.

Marom, along with the 100 artists participating in the five-day festival, is prepared to do almost anything to go on with this year’s event, which was forced online last summer due to the pandemic.

Three of the scheduled international artists recently canceled due to new quarantine measures, but the rest of the planned roster is ready to perform puppet shows and other theater works for children and adults.

This year, the Train Theater — so called for its original home in an abandoned train carriage, now renovated for the new complex — is celebrating 40 years of performances, as well as the festival’s 30th year and its move into the new children’s cultural center, donated by London’s Davidson family and the Jerusalem Foundation.

The festival opens August 22 with the inauguration of the new center, designed to resemble building blocks and situated next to a skateboarding complex in a renovated corner of the park. The complex includes two auditoriums, one large and one small, a grassy outdoor stage, and a cafe.

The 33 original productions will be performed in the theaters and outdoor spaces of the complex, with performances for children of all ages.

The refurbished train carriage at Jerusalem’s Train Theater, which has a brand-new complex at Liberty Bell Park, just in time for the 2021 Jerusalem Puppet Festival, August 22-26, 2021 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

They include adaptations of well-known Hebrew children’s books and Mother Goose poems, as well as more original material, such as “The Big Bang,” a work by the Itim Ensemble and Zvi Sahar, portraying a fantasy taking place in space.

One of the works being performed at the upcoming Jerusalem Puppet Festival, August 22-26, 2021 (Courtesy Kfir Bolotin)

There are contemporary plays for adults as well, performed during the evenings of the festival and generally suitable for teens.

“Missing Faces – Live” by Iris Erez combines contemporary dance language with images projected on smartphones worn on the actors’ bodies, while “Reality Check” by Nimrod Farchy creates a contemporary circus onstage.

Another work is “Silence Makes Perfect,” a play by Yael Rasooly and Amit Dolberg, a staged fantasy revealing a painful personal story about sexual assault.

Rasooly, 38, got her start in puppetry at this very festival some 20 years ago, finding that it enabled her to bring together the arts that long inspired her: stories, classical music, opera and song.

Working with her colleague Amit Dolberg and a team of five musicians and a costume designer, she’s finally premiering her most recent work at the festival, where she “grew up,” said Rasooly, before staging it in France at the World Puppet Theatre Festival in September, if COVID-19 doesn’t spike those plans.

Yael Rasooly, a puppeteer and singer whose highly personal work about sexual assault will be premiered at the Jerusalem Puppet Festival, August 22-26, 2021 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

“There’s four generations of artists in the festival,” said Marom. “There’s all kinds of things going on here. It’s a place that artists feel is theirs, and they can do and create in this space, as we expand the conversation of theater.”

The heart of this year’s festival is an outdoor complex for the whole family focused around the theme of surprises as the audience is invited to experience a carnival of installations, performances, dance, sound, and multidisciplinary works, with free activities featured every afternoon so that families can spend entire days at the festival.

It’s also intended to be an inexpensive day of culture, at NIS 25 per ticket for the surprise complex (early bird price), and appealing to a wide range of local Israeli audiences, said Marom — secular and religious, Jewish and Arab, including wordless plays as well for those who aren’t native Hebrew speakers.

‘Cozy One Man Band,’ one of the works being performed at the Jerusalem Puppet Festival, August 22-26, 2021 (Courtesy David Siebert)

Early bird tickets of NIS 45 for children’s shows and NIS 60 for adult performances are available for purchase until August 21, while tickets during the festival will cost NIS 60 for children’s shows and NIS 80 for adult shows. There are also combination ticket packages available for purchase through the festival website.

“It offers a real day out to disappear from the real world,” said Marom. “This isn’t Legoland, it’s not commercial, it’s for your soul. A festival should offer some kind of fantasy, a place where you can enter a world of imagination.”

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