Keys to the ‘Kingdom’


"The ideals that form the moral compass of Western civilization, the belief that every human being has value, the belief that no one is above the law, the belief that how each of us treats our fellow human beings matters — these were all the gifts of the Jews."

So declares Carl Byker, producer-director of "Kingdom of David: The Saga of the Israelites," who has devoted four film hours to trace how a tiny, insignificant tribe exerted such an enormous impact on the history and moral outlook of the rest of the world.

"Kingdom of David" is an ambitious undertaking. It combines a history of the Israelites from the Babylonian exile in 586 B.C.E. to the Roman conquest of the first century C.E., together with a parallel track on the evolution of the Jewish religion and of its written and oral law.

The film balances drama with instruction by using actors to recreate the daily life and bloody battles of half a millennium, alternating with the commentary of noted scholars.

And bloody battles they were — by and against a succession of conquerors, from the Babylonians, Assyrians and Persians to the Greeks and Romans. The slaughter, often triggered by desperate Jewish revolts, left the Jews again and again at the edge of extinction, only to recreate themselves and rise again.

To its credit, the miniseries presents both the traditional biblical version of Jewish history, counterpointed by the findings of archaeologists and modern scholarship.

The latter proposes, for instance, that instead of the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites were natives of the land of Canaan, and lower-class natives at that. One scholar observes that by conceiving stories to define their identity, "It is as if the stories created the people, rather than the other way around."

Local scholars are prominent among the commentators, including Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Perry Netter and David Wolpe, author Jonathan Kirsch and professor Ziony Zevit.

Among the narrators are Keith David and actors Jeremy Irons, Derek Jacobi, Rene Auberjonois and F. Murray Abraham.

"Kingdom of David" may not represent the very deepest interpretation and analysis, but it is an accessible and lively survey of the genesis of our heritage.

The two-part miniseries will air at 9 p.m. on May 14 and 21 on KCET.

A Personal ‘Uprising’


“Uprising,” the TV miniseries about the Warsaw Resistance, is being released in theaters Dec. 7, and on DVD and VHS Dec. 18. Some actors shared with The Journal their personal experiences on the set.

Alexandra Holden (Frania Beatus)

People laugh when I tell them I played a Polish Jew in “Uprising.” I’m a blond, blue-eyed Minnesotan of Scandinavian descent; what was Jon Avnet thinking casting me? I was worried. I wasn’t sure I deserved the role. I thought it may be more relevant to a Jewish girl, that it would mean something more to her.

However, my biggest (and silliest) fear was that the viewers would spot me as an impostor.

Fortunately, the two-week rehearsal period created a sense of togetherness among the actors that became, to me, one of the most extraordinary aspects of the entire experience. From the very first day, the fears that had plagued me evaporated. I immediately felt a sense of equality that I’ve never experienced in a work situation. It soon didn’t matter who was or wasn’t Jewish. I didn’t think about it anymore. It didn’t matter what my background was, or what I looked like. What mattered was that we were all there “for one purpose” and we united over that purpose.

Some small part of the Jewish culture became a part of me, and my commitment to the group and the project grew and grew. I would have done just about anything for the film, and I am extremely proud to be a part of it. It’s an experience that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

Hank Azaria (Mordechai Anielewicz)

When you do any historical drama, especially one as accurate and devastating as “Uprising,” you get a tremendous history lesson. You also get the honor and excitement of applying that knowledge the best way an actor knows how: by portraying a role that helps tell the story.

One of our jobs as actors is to imagine: “What if we were really in these circumstances?” As a Jew, with a great uncle that died in Treblinka, this job was made much easier and at the same time, much more difficult to endure.

During a break in filming, I went to Prague for a few days. Amazingly, I ran into an old professor of mine from Tufts University, Sal Gittleman, who taught Yiddish literature and German expressionism. Back in college, he reminded all of his Jewish students — and there were a lot of us — that no matter how assimilated we are during times of persecution, it is our oppressors, not we, who decide how Jewish we are. It was a lesson I never forgot, and one that I was very proud to help bring to light in “Uprising.”

Mili Avital (Devorah)

I didn’t just want to be a part of “Uprising,” I insisted on it. As an Israeli actress working in Hollywood, I felt something after reading the script for the first time that I have never felt before. This was the story of a group of people fighting to exist as Jews in a world that doesn’t want them. Fighting to create a new type of Jew; a modern kind of Jew, who dreams to create a new society of people that are helping each other to exist freely and on their own. It was the story of the nation I come from, the origin of my blood, my spirit.

As we American and English actors were walking around the set and exploring its structure, I felt uncomfortable, as if they were studying my own body in a lab. Why is this the history of my nation? Why isn’t it like the one of the American actors who come from the country of Gold Rush and endless land, or the English actors of royals and teatime. I was furious.

When it was suggested during our rehearsal process that I sing Israel’s national anthem as part of the research, I suddenly felt different. I felt the joy and pride, as it was reminding me who I am: an Israeli Jewish actress that is here to tell this story of the amazing bravery, courage and faith of my people, as it is the story of all human beings fighting for life.

Stephen Moyer (Kazik)

From the moment I started reading the script of “Uprising,” I have been enthralled with it. My character in the film was not just one of the protagonists, but much of the script was based on his own experiences. Not only was it a true story, but I was to meet the man I was playing and spend time with him talking about his incredible experiences.

No amount of research and attempts to understand Jewish culture can quite prepare you for meeting the man you are playing. Kazik’s generosity of spirit is impossible to encapsulate in these short paragraphs, but to say that he made my job easier would be an understatement. He gave me complete free rein with his own life … only ever offering words of encouragement and never advice.

It was an extraordinary story that was being told, and I had been incredibly lucky to get the part. Jon Avnet’s casting of me in the part was all the more surprising. As a Jewish director tackling incredibly sensitive material, it was a bold step, and one that I am extremely grateful for.

Courageous Acts


On April 18, 1943, as the vaunted German army marched in to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto, a few hundred Jewish resistance fighters, armed with pistols, rifles and homemade Molotov cocktails, confronted the Nazi soldiers and held them at bay for almost a month.

The ghetto fighters "chose to live and die honorably in a dishonorable world and to take control of their own destiny when the world had abandoned them," says filmmaker Jon Avnet.

Avnet, as director, executive producer and co-writer, has been the driving force behind the miniseries "Uprising," which will air in two two-hour segments on Nov. 4 and 5, from 9 to 11 p.m. on NBC.

The completion of "Uprising" wraps up an intensive seven-year campaign by Avnet, a successful commercial filmmaker, against the "canard" that all 6 million Jews went without protest to their deaths during the Holocaust.

The closest current analogy to the ghetto fighters, in Avnet’s mind, is represented by the passengers aboard United Airlines flight no. 93 on Sept. 11, who rushed the terrorists of their hijacked plane, in the near certainty that they would all die.

Cleaving closely to the facts, the makers of this docudrama have based their story mainly on the memoirs of the few who survived the destruction of the ghetto.

The film’s timeline starts at the beginning of 1943, when the 450,000 Jews once crammed into the Warsaw Ghetto had been reduced to 60,000 by deportations, starvation and disease.

Among this remnant was the nucleus of the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB), the Jewish Fighters Organization.

Except for a handful of "older" leaders in their mid-20s, most of the fighters were between 18 and 21 years old. Their attempts to enlist the help of the Judenrat, the Jewish Council appointed by the Nazis, failed, and the ZOB drew first blood on Jan. 18, attacking German soldiers escorting a column of deportees.

The Nazis returned in force, with tanks and artillery, on April 18, and their commander promised that the entire ghetto would be liquidated by April 20, as a birthday present to Hitler.

During the next few weeks, the surprised Germans were repeatedly beaten back, until they systematically leveled every ghetto building and flushed out holdouts with gas and fire. The last organized stand came at a bunker at Mila Street 18, although some fighters escaped to the "Aryan" side through Warsaw’s sewers and lived to fight as partisans and tell their story later.

On May 16, 1943, German Gen. Jurgen Stroop declared Warsaw "Judenrein" (free of Jews), although a few Jewish snipers remained to harass the Nazi soldiers.

The dominant figure in "Uprising" is ZOB commander Mordechai Anielewicz, a 24-year old teacher, who was killed in the final battle at Mila 18. Anielewicz is portrayed by Hank Azaria, known mainly for his comedic roles, who here displays a forcefulness and intensity that is central to the credibility of "Uprising."

Other resistance fighters are played by Leelee Sobieski (Tosia Altman), Stephen Moyer (Simha "Kazik" Rotem), John Ales (Marek Edelman), as well as Sadie Frost, Radha Mitchell and Israeli actress Mili Avital.

Donald Sutherland gives a finely nuanced performance as Adam Czerniakow, the conflicted head of the Judenrat, while Jon Voight commendably avoids playing General Stroop as a one-dimensional villain.

The only miscasting appears to be David Schwimmer of "Friends" fame, who portrays Yitzhak "Antek" Zuckerman. Even with a willing suspension of disbelief, it is difficult to imagine the well-fed and neatly combed Schwimmer as the ZOB’s chief operative on the "Aryan" side and the organization’s commander after Anielewicz’s death.

"Uprising" has moments of sheer elation, as when the ghetto fighters raise a hand-made flag with the Star of David over one building, in the teeth of Nazi artillery. In counterpoint, educator Janus Korczak, head of an orphanage, tells his charges that they are going on a picnic, and they climb into the cattle cars on the way to Treblinka, singing "The Sun Is Shining."

Among the most harrowing scenes are those of German soldiers pumping water into the rat-infested sewers to flush out the remaining fighters.

"Uprising" is likely to raise protests from Polish American organizations for its unsparingly harsh view of the Polish people.

In one particularly damning incident, an Easter Mass is celebrated in a Warsaw cathedral, while the smoke of the ghetto’s burning buildings and bodies drift into the church. The priest’s response is to close the windows and continue the service.

At other dramatic points, the Polish underground refuses to aid the embattled Jews, and a Polish worker, paid to guide the Jews through the sewers, tries to renege on his bargain.

Avnet remains unfazed by possible negative reactions. "I wasn’t nearly as tough on the Poles as I could have," he says. Without Polish collaboration with the Germans, "many thousands of Jews could have been saved, and we can say the same of the Ukrainians and Latvians."

One of his grandfathers was a cantor in the Ukraine, but he was raised in a "traditional Reform" family in Brooklyn and on Long Island.

He filmed "Uprising" in the Slovakian city of Bratislava. It was a 73-day project he describes as "very difficult — physically, emotionally and financially."

The director praised the dedication of the predominantly gentile cast and crew, who "worked for very little under tough conditions." The shoot has some moments of high emotion, as when Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, who served as consultant on the film, led cast and extras in the singing of "Hatikvah," the Israeli national anthem.

Avnet hopes that "Uprising" will show the world the courage of many Jews during the Holocaust, and he does not hide his anger at those "who have inflicted the final indignity" on the 6 million by drawing a picture of complete Jewish passivity.

"I cannot understand why [historian Hannah] Arendt perpetuated this image, and shame, also, on the journalistic community, which has really blown it," Avnet says. "This film is a clarion call to unblow it."

‘Haven’ for Sweeps


“Haven” is an intriguing but seriously flawed depiction of how nearly 1,000 European refugees were transported and admitted to the United States in 1944, which CBS-TV will present as a four-hour miniseries on Feb. 11 and 14 at 9 p.m.

The film is based on the remarkable experiences of Ruth Gruber and her book “Haven.” Gruber, now a vigorous 89, is a phenomenon who got her Ph.D. at 20, did stints as an Arctic explorer and foreign correspondent, and became special assistant to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes during the Roosevelt administration.

In June 1944, Ickes asked Gruber to fly to Naples, recently taken by the U.S. army, and escort the predominantly Jewish refugees, who were being admitted to the United States as a one-time gesture by Washington.

The first part of the miniseries chronicles the refugees’ 13-day voyage, threatened by Nazi air and submarine attacks and marked by friction with wounded GIs sharing the ship, as well as among the Jews from 18 different countries.

The second part shows the refugees after their arrival in a former army camp in Oswego, N.Y., where they are held for 18 months. Gruber fights doggedly with the Washington bureaucracies to grant more freedom to the refugees and allow them to stay in the United States after the war.

Natasha Richardson (Vanessa Redgrave’s beautiful daughter) acquits herself well in the demanding role of Gruber. Her screen mother is Anne Bancroft, forced to play the stereotypical Jewish mama, always worried about her daughter’s travel and eating habits, wondering aloud when she’ll get married.

Martin Landau plays Gruber’s father, a quiet man (no wonder), but a devoted husband and pal to his daughter. Hal Holbrook is Ickes and Henry Czerny, Colm Feore and Tamara Gorski are among the more noticeable refugees.

Outstanding in a minor role is Luke Kirby as a refugee boy who quickly adjusts to American ways.So much for the good news.

On the downside, screenwriter Suzette Couture and director John Gray apparently could not resist the temptation to insert gratuitous flashbacks of a torrid love affair between Gruber and a German student, which Gruber herself describes as more innocent. But that’s show biz.

Also annoying is the advertising campaign for “Haven,” which features a determined-looking Natasha, surmounted by the words “Her Courage Saved a Thousand Lives.”

As Gruber is the first to acknowledge, she escorted the preselected refugees from Naples, she did not save them. Again, the usual Hollywood hype, which does no harm, except to cheapen the deeds of those who actually risked their and their families’ lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust.

But there are deeper flaws. The most puzzling one is the apparent decision by the filmmakers to initially portray almost all the U.S. soldiers and the people of Oswego as a bunch of anti-Semites.

Sure, there was lots of prejudice against Jews, both as refugees and within the U.S. army — to both of which I can testify. But to smear almost all Americans of that generation with the broad brush of anti-Semitism is not only inaccurate but finds no justification in Gruber’s book.

In addition to numerous acts of personal kindness by both soldiers and townspeople, Gruber reports in her book the words of one of Oswego’s leading Jewish citizens that with few exceptions, “the town’s reaction to the refugees has been nearly one hundred percent favorable.”

The kindest explanation one can give for this unfair slanting is that the filmmakers wanted to dramatize the later “conversion” by once hostile soldiers and civilians as they got to know the refugees better.CBS will air “Haven” in two-hour installments, starting at 9 p.m. Sun., Feb. 11, and continuing Wed., Feb. 14.

Surviving Hollywood


On the old Paramount Ranch deep in the San Fernando Valley, Woodstock has returned — as in the world’s greatest love-in, the ’60s festival that affected a generation. Producer Lynda Obst, who is responsible for this unnerving flashback, watches intensely from the sidelines with a proprietary eye.

She attended the real thing back in 1969 and she wants to make sure the re-creation stays true to the original. Some 300 extras mill about in front of her, with long bleached hair, tie-dyed shirts, headbands, bodies wrapped in U.S. flags — and that’s just the men. The women with flowers in their hair are clothed in ankle length dresses and bellbottoms. Psychedelic painted buses are parked nearby. Incense burns, however the odor of marijuana is absent, just to keep everything legal.

Every so often an actor breaks from the milling ranks and runs to Obst. Like a general inspecting troops she smiles then waves him back.

The whole process is bringing back vivid memories of her own Woodstock experience: “I remember driving my car in reverse for about 12 miles to get out of the mud,” she recalls.

In fact, in absolute defiance of the old adage about the ’60s: ‘If you can remember it, you weren’t there,” there isn’t much about the whole thing Obst can’t recall in almost obsessive detail. On this subject she’s an expert. In fact her four-hour miniseries, “The Sixties,” (airing on NBC in February) and the reason she’s at the Paramount Ranch, is based on “The Rolling Stone History of the Sixties,” which she authored.

For Obst, a magazine editor turned movie producer (“Fisher King,” “Hope Floats,” “One Fine Day,” “Contact”), working in TV is a whole new experience after almost 20 years in features. “The Sixties” comes hot on the heels of the launch this month of “The Siege,” the latest terrorist-threat-to-America movie, starring Denzel Washington, Annette Bening and Bruce Willis, and directed by Ed Zwick.

If “The Siege” appears to be yet another wannabe blockbuster, blow-’em-up action flick, Obst insists: “It’s not an action movie in pursuit of the dollar. It’s an action movie that may also get people thinking.”

But while there’s heavy spending riding on the outcome of the potential blockbuster, for Obst it’s clear that “The Sixties” is her personal passion.

As the hundreds of extras work themselves up into a wild passionate dance frenzy under a special effects rainstorm, she explains why, after a slew of hit movies, she’s bothering with TV.

“I haven’t really had a reason to do TV until NBC came up with the idea,” Obst says. “This is near and dear to me. In many ways I’ve wanted to find a way to tackle the ’60s all my career. They wanted a kind of Ragtime blend of history. I had done the book and knew here was the reason to do a miniseries. TV is the right medium. It’s so epic, so much happened and all we’ve been able to do is a slice of that era.”

The NBC documdrama follows three families as they grow up and become part of the counterculture, affected in various ways by the cataclysms of the era.

“We mix our family stories in between history and archival footage: Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, civil rights marches, the Vietnam War. One of our characters is at RFK headquarters when Bobby is assassinated. We all saw it in news footage and felt it in our daily lives.”

As the oldest of three (“That’s how I got so bossy,” she laughs), Obst grew up in a Jewish home in affluent Westchester County, N.Y., admitting she was spoiled by her garment industry executive father and her schoolteacher mother who provided her with a snazzy sports car as soon as she turned 16.

A graduate of Pomona College, she started out in publishing as editor/author of the “Sixties” history. She then spent three years at the New York Times Magazine covering a wide range of stories.

In l979 she moved to the West Coast with her then husband, agent David Obst, who came to L.A. to start Simon and Schuster Productions. But it was Lynda who was hired by the couple’s friend Peter Guber to develop scripts at his Casablanca/Polygram Productions.

“I’d just had a baby (son Oliver, now 20), and Peter offered me a job, not having any idea of whether I could do it or not. In those days all a woman had to do was to be able to have proper behavior at a meeting, know how to dispense water and give notes on scripts. He figured at the very least I could probably do the serving water part.”

From the bottom of the executive pile, Obst toiled hard to develop “Flashdance” as a movie. It was a major hit, although in the end she had to be satisfied with an associate producer credit.

She left Guber to work with producer David Geffen and then, in the mid-’80s teamed up with Debra Hill to produce “Adventures in Babysitting,” with actress Elisabeth Shue. Four years later (also with Hill but under her own banner), she produced the Robin Williams’ urban fairy story, “The Fisher King,” followed by two Nora Ephron directed films, “This is My Life,” with Julie Kavner and Samantha Mathis, and “Sleepless in Seattle,” with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Assorted other hits have followed.

In 1996 Obst wrote a witty primer on making it and surviving in Hollywood, her best-selling book, “Hello He Lied, and Other Truths from the Hollywood Trenches,” but there is little about her personal background or insider gossip. The book takes the Hollywood “high road” and chronicles her adventures as a woman trying to get recognized in the male-dominated movie hierarchy.

But by the time the tome came out, Obst was no longer struggling. She had acquired power and clout on her own.

“For the first time leading actors request meetings with me and not just the director,” she wrote. “Marketing departments change their advertisement campaigns when I feel they’re not up to par. Things have gotten easier, so it’s now possible for me to directly affect the quality of my own work. I am no longer at the mercy of the ‘gatekeepers’… I am responsible for the work that appears on the screen.”

Things have changed all around since she wrote the book, she comments while on the set of “The Sixties,” citing the fact that now five woman make key decisions at different studios across town. “But even though we’ve got as many women picking pictures as men,” she insists, “the ultimate ownership of the companies, the Wall Street part of the equation, is still in the hands of the guys.”

Even with her success, the 48-year-old producer admits launching a new project is still no cakewalk. She has been trying to get the rights to the story of Richard Jewell, the security guard wrongly accused by the FBI of being behind the 1996 Olympic park bombing in Atlanta, made into a movie. She optioned a Vanity Fair story on Jewell’s ordeal and hopes to get the project under way now that writer-director David Mamet has shown interest in the story.

Perseverance, Obst explains, is the name of the Hollywood game.

“I’m like an elephant, I never lose interest, never forget and always have something on the backburner. I never cease trying unless it’s not good. Then you have to stop hitting your head against the wall.”

Lynda Obst


Uncovering Gulf War Syndrome


Television

Scenes from “Thanks of a Grateful Nation.” Photos courtesy of Showtime

Uncovering Gulf War Syndrome

Showtime’s ‘Thanks of a Grateful Nation’ explores the malady plaguing so many vets and the government’s coverup

By Ivor Davis

If you can, keep 8 p.m. on Sunday, May 31, free. The occasion: the Showtime miniseries “Thanks of a Grateful Nation” (the ironic title is taken from congressional hearings), a dramatization of real events based on real people.

It is a doleful tale, indeed. Chris Small, played by Matt Keeslar (“Sour Grapes”), has much to look forward to as he returns home to his wife, Teri (Jennifer Jason Leigh). He loves Teri, his country and his career in the military. But something is drastically wrong: Chris, a strong, healthy young man when he went away, is getting increasingly sick. Then, Teri and their new baby start sharing his symptoms. While Teri seeks answers, her campaign alienates other military wives and eventually even her husband.

Meanwhile, in the Texas heartland, Jeran Gallimore (Steven Webber) comes home from a postwar desert cleanup assignment to find himself diagnosed with multiple brain tumors that his doctors have never before seen. His devoted sister, Jerilinn Folz (Marg Helgenberger), and his mother care for him as best they can after he’s turfed out of a VA hospital because his insurance runs out.

In Washington, ex-Secret Service agent Jim Tuite (Ted Danson), working in the office of Sen. Donald Riegle (Brian Dennehy), discovers that despite the government’s denials, there is a Gulf War Syndrome, and it’s killing and maiming American servicemen and their families.

Once upon a time, this David and Goliath tale would have been a big-screen epic, starring Meryl Streep or Michael Douglas. But in this blockbuster cinematic era, it has been left to cable TV to tell this true story, effectively intercutting the action with interviews with the real-life survivors. And it is to Showtime’s credit that this is not one of those once-over-lightly, facile TV quickies.

Says Executive Producer Tracey Alexander, who, after reading a magazine story about the sexual transmission of Gulf War Syndrome, conducted four years of research before going into production: “We interviewed about 200 people. We read every congressional and senatorial hearing from over a five-year period.”

The reasons for the coverup become gradually clearer to an increasingly bitter Tuite. “From 1985 to 1989, American companies approved by the U.S. government supplied chemical-warfare agents to Iraq — bubonic plague, botulism, anthrax and an assortment of other deadly gasses and poisons,” he declares. “Our men sickened and died from weapons wielded by the enemy but supplied by their own country.”

Oh so gradually, the military began to admit the possibility that some of their troops were suffering from new and terrifying diseases. First, it was 100 to 300, then it was 1,000, then 10,000. Today, estimates of the number of Gulf War Syndrome victims is 10,000, and the VA and the Department of Defense, who refused to acknowledge the truth, have been removed from any role in the future investigation of Gulf War Syndrome.

And, happily, not everyone failed the vets. Brian Dennehy was left with an abiding admiration for one man in government who put his reputation on the line to uncover the truth.

“I have tremendous respect for Sen. Riegle,” he says, “and it’s unfortunate he is no longer in politics. It’s rare and unusual for a politician to take a stand the way he did, the way he put himself in a potentially damaging position. Clearly, Riegle cared enough about the vets and his country to do something about it. He’s a true patriot.”

Ventura writer Ivor Davis writes a weekly column for The New York Times Syndicate.

 

 

 

“It’s the most difficult experience I’ve ever had in the theater,” says Edith Fields of “Request Concert.”

 

Theater

A Vow of Silence

In ‘Request Concert,’ Edith Fields conveys a world of isolation and despair without uttering a syllable

By Naomi Pfefferman, Entertainment Editor

In Franz Xaver Kroetz’s play “Request Concert,” a middle-aged woman returns home from work and bustles around her tidy efficiency apartment.

Miss Rasch prepares a candlelit dinner for one. She clips coupons, reads a romance novel, meticulously wipes her spotless stove. She undresses, prepares for bed — and reaches a jolting realization.

Miss Rasch has plenty of time for her little routines because she is utterly alone.

Actress Edith Fields, too, is alone throughout Kroetz’s powerful play (now at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks). For 90 minutes, she conveys the protagonist’s isolation and despair, without uttering a syllable.

“It’s the most difficult experience I’ve ever had in the theater,” says Fields, the recipient of seven DramaLogue awards, including one for a 1986 production of “Request Concert” at the Cast Theatre. “Words are the actor’s crutch, and without them, you must be completely in the moment. You must have a running internal life because the audience is watching you as if you are under a microscope. If you make one false move, they will know.”

When Fields was asked to replace Salome Jens in the 1986 production, she was, in a word, terrified. She had just one week to prepare for the role, so she practically slept on the set. After each mute performance, she was so dazed that her husband had to whisk her away from the theater. “I did not enjoy the experience at all,” she says.

A dozen years passed, and Fields matured as an actress. She earned praise fo
r her performances in plays such as “Death of a Salesman” and “Nuts.” She appeared on “Seinfeld” and “Murphy Brown” and in films such as “Dad” and “Mr. Saturday Night.” She forgot about “Request Concert” — until a young man approached her at a fund-raising dinner about a year ago. “I know who you are,” he said. “I saw you in ‘Request Concert,’ and I’ve never forgotten you.”

Fields took the hint. She decided it was time to reprise “Request Concert” in Los Angeles, this time as an actress and executive producer. She thought that the piece about urban loneliness would resonate here more than ever.

And so Fields wrote a passionate letter to Kroetz in Germany, requesting the rights to the play. She reunited with her former director, Michael Arabian, and began precisely preparing for the role.

Though Kroetz envisions Miss Rasch as a working-class German, Fields imagines her as a middle-class resident of North Hollywood, “a sprawling place without a sense of community,” she says. She memorized the script — around eight pages of stage directions — and invented the back story of Miss Rasch’s life. Like Kroetz, Fields sees the protagonist as a spinster who once had a painful love affair.

Before Fields ever rehearsed onstage, she practiced at home, where she virtually lived in Miss Rasch’s world. “I began to observe myself in lonely situations,” says the actress, who created a subliminal script for “Request Concert,” a monologue of Miss Rasch’s thoughts that runs in Fields’ head throughout every moment of the play.

Fields grew up in an upper-middle-class, Orthodox Jewish family in Poughkeepsie N.Y., where she performed Yiddish songs at Jewish events with her identical twin sister. The girls eventually signed a contract to work the Borscht Belt, but their parents nixed their career. Nice Jewish girls didn’t work in show business, they said.

So Fields married young, had babies, and did children’s theater as a hobby. It wasn’t until her children were teen-agers that she felt the void in her life. She hesitated, however, when her husband suggested that she take professional theater classes in Manhattan. “I was a frightened person, an identical twin with no sense of self,” Fields says. “I was a mother, a daughter, a wife, but I had no identity.”

If her husband hadn’t pressed her, Fields admits, she never would have had the guts to enroll at the renowned Herbert Berghof Studio. As it was, she paced the city in a driving rain before she could persuade herself to attend her first class.

Fields went on to study with William Hickey and Stella Adler, and, two years later, she landed her first role, off, off Broadway. Astoundingly, the suburban mom was able to nurture an acting career.

She had to start all over again in 1977, when her husband moved his surgery practice to Los Angeles. “It was devastating for me,” she says. “I didn’t know anyone, and I felt lost, alienated, alone.”

Fields draws upon all those feelings for “Request Concert,” which she hopes will reach out to all the lonely hearts of Los Angeles. “When I am onstage, I feel that I am letting people know they are not alone,” she says. “I want them to know there is a way out, that they don’t have to live that way. I also want to raise the consciousness of all the people who don’t have to live alone. They’ll never look the same way at a solitary person walking down the street.”

“Request Concert,” Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. $18. (213) 960-7754.

Alarums and Excursions

By Charles Marowitz

Rodgers, Hammerstein and Hart

When Lorenz Hart died in 1943, Richard Rodgers transformed from a sharp, urban composer of sophisticated musical comedies into a formidable American monument. It was a little like the sleek and pleated lines of the New York Chrysler Building turning into the Eiffel Tower. Although Rodgers’ collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein II produced some admirable early works such as “Oklahoma” and “Carousel,” the slide toward nauseous sentimentality had begun and would soon chuck up maudlin mementos such as “South Pacific,” “The Flower Drum Song” and “The Sound of Music.”

“The King and I,” the current revival at the Pantages, is a monument in blancmange commemorating cuteness. Cute little Siamese wives, and cute little Siamese children, and cute little Siamese settings that evoke all the tinselly glamour of an Oriental whorehouse. The story itself, based mainly on Anna Leonowen’s book “The English Governess at the Siamese Court,” could be perversely condensed as follows: An upper-middle-class English teacher, summoned to tutor the children of a Siamese emperor in Western language and customs, pollutes the rich traditions of an ancient culture with superficial notions of Christianity and democracy, subverting the King’s authority, destabilizing the state and, after humiliating him before his royal entourage and straining his weak heart with excessive dancing of the polka, ultimately brings about his death. It being a musical soap opera, it is implied, of course, that the King has secret hankerings for the British tutor, which, tacitly, are reciprocated.

The most curious aspect of the culture clash is that what most seems to get Anna’s goat is the fact that the ancient hierarchical customs impose a rigid caste system which demands slavish obsequiousness from all the King’s subjects. An odd objection in the late 19th century, when England itself was one of the most class-ridden societies in the world and the deference due to British royalty, although less flamboyant, was every bit as severe as that accorded the King of Siam.

In the role of the English governess (originally created by Gertrude Lawrence, who was much closer to the right age) is Marie Osmond, who has a limpid voice that is almost entirely devoid of character. Someone ought to inform the actress that only parodic Music Hall comedians pronounce the word “know” as “ni’yoh” and that, in England, “romance” doesn’t rhyme with “ponce” but with “pants.” Osmond wears her English accent as lightly as if it were the anchor of the Titanic. She looks like a piece of Dresden china and, unfortunately, acts like one as well.

As the Siamese potentate, Victor Talmadge
is tough, terse and authoritative, but constantly operating under the cloud of Yul Brynner’s definitive performance. A radically different approach, one that played up the King’s insecurities rather than his pomposity, might have reaped greater rewards. The rest of the cast is dramatically negligible and musically undernourished, the strongest and most delineated performance coming from Helen Yu as Lady Thiang, the King’s sympathetic stalwart at the palace. As in previous revivals, the Siamese version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” tastefully choreographed by Jerome Robbins, is the high point of the evening — a hard-edged little gem amid the soft-centered bonbons that surround it.

The show’s most durable virtue is, of course, the music. Numbers such as “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Hello, Young Lovers” “Getting to Know You” and “Shall We Dance” are unexpungable show tunes. The problem is that these are slotted into Hammerstein’s book according to the formulaic requirements of the Broadway stage: a lighthearted comedy number followed by a love song, followed by a large production number, leading to a reprise and a big finale. The building blocks of the musical are more apparent than the dry-walling, plaster and decoration intended to cover them. And throughout, we can feel our emotions being directed from one place to another, as if by a bumptious tour guide who refuses to allow his sightseers to have any sensations other than those prescribed by his itinerary.

The Rodgers and Hart collaborations were far more primitive, far less polished, cruder in every respect, but I’d sooner rollick through “Pal Joey,” “A Connecticut Yankee” or “The Boys From Syracuse” any day — just for the sheer pleasure of their buoyancy and spontaneity. Shows such as “The King and I” inhabit that portentous realm which is adjacent to operetta and a long bus ride away from song-and-dance shows. And although they are more stately and have more dignity than the genre from which they evolved, I mourn the absence of the boisterousness, frivolity and high spirits that informed many of their predecessors.

Marie Osmond as the English governess in “The King and I.”

Charles Marowitz, a regular contributor for In

Theater magazine, writes from Malibu

 

Sociologist Nathan Glazer

 

 

Film

Irving Kristol (standing, far right) at the City College of New York, circa 1940, as seen in “Arguing the World.”

Liberal Leftovers

The new documentary ‘Arguing the World’ follows the lives of four prominent 20th-century intellectuals

By Naomi Pfefferman, Entertainment Editor

In Alcove 1 of the City College of New York cafeteria in the late 1930s and early 1940s, four radical sons of Jewish immigrants munched brown-bag lunches, talked Marxism and passionately argued the world.

The scrappy young members of the anti-Stalinist left went on to become prominent New York intellectuals: literary critic Irving Howe, political journalist Irving Kristol, the sociologists Nathan Glazer and Daniel Bell.

They would argue for the rest of their lives.

Joseph Dorman captures it all in his fascinating new documentary, “Arguing the World,” which depicts the four doing what they do best: talking.

The riveting movie, which weaves together gossipy, personal reminiscences, lively archival footage and photos, follows the familiar arc of 20th-century Jewish intellectuals. From the “cheder” of City College, the four men became writers and editors of publications such as Partisan Review, Dissent and Commentary. They shaped American social and cultural criticism with such books as Howe’s “Politics and the Novel” and Glazer’s “Beyond the Melting Pot.” Along the way, they moved from outsider to insider, from the political left to varying degrees of the middle and right.

Disgusted by Stalin, the intellectuals rejected Soviet communism and hardly spoke out when fellow leftists were purged during the McCarthy era. During the 1960s, they clashed with the New Left, all from different points of view.

When police bloodied heads at Columbia University, Bell, who had unsuccessfully negotiated with students, walked home and cried. Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, then a student activist, dubbed Glazer and his UC Berkeley colleagues “control freaks” and armchair liberals. Howe, Dissent’s editor, whose ideology remained closest to the New Left, called student leader Tom Hayden a “commissar.”

In the end, Kristol became a Reaganite guru, influential in America’s resurgent conservative movement; Bell fought to defend a besieged liberalism; Glazer became a forceful critic of liberal social policy; and Howe, ever on the political margins, endured as a key voice of the radical left until his death in 1993.

It’s no wonder that none of the four men appear together in Dorman’s film. In fact, Howe says of Kristol: “The fact that we were together 50 years ago doesn’t stir the faintest feeling in me. I wish him well personally — a long life with many political failures.”

Though Kristol reciprocates the feeling, Dorman notices Howe’s classic Jewish social history, “World of Our Fathers,” on the conservative’s bookshelf.

The four men, after all, share more than a common Jewish history. Bell, revisiting his Lower East Side neighborhood, suggests that the Socialist Party headquarters were more important than the synagogue. And gravel-voiced, chain-smoking Kristol told New York magazine that “the difference between the kind of radicals we were and the kind of radicals one sees occasionally today is that we read books. We argued about Marx, but you had to sit down in that little book and read Marx. Including the unreadable stuff, like ‘Das Kapital.'”

“Arguing the World” opens on May 29 at Laemmle’s Music Hall Theatre in Beverly Hills for a one-week run. For information, call (310) 274-6869.

 

 

 

Jerri Zbiral and cameraman Ned Miller interview Pavel Horesovsky, a child survivor. Pavel was 16 days old when he was taken from his mother.

In Memory’s Shadow

By Ruth Stroud, Staff Writer

As a child of a concentration camp survivor, Jerri Zbiral grew up hearing about Lidice, her mother’s hometown. A small Czech village near Prague, it was wiped out in June 1942, in retaliation for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, an SS officer who helped mastermind the Nazi genocide. Zbiral’s mother, Anna, her grandmother and her older half-sister survived, but none of the 192 men in the Catholic farming town did, and only nine of the town’s 91 children were spared. The rest were crammed inside trucks and gassed. The women were sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp, where they remained until the war’s end. One hundred forty-three returned to Lidice, Zbiral’s mother and grandmother among them. But the peaceful village they remembered no longer existed: The houses and buildings had been obliterated, hills leveled and even the river rerouted. A new town called Lidice was eventually built nearby. Anna, widowed like the other women, was reunited with her daughter, Eva, one of the nine surviving children who had been raised by her sister-in-law in Germany. Anna remarried, and Jerri was born in Prague in November 1948.

When Zbiral was growing up in Ontario, Canada, the reminders of her mother’s nightmarish past were ever-present. Anna wouldn’t serve oatmeal, beets or turnips because those were foods she had eaten in Ravensbruck. Zbiral had to clean her plate because her mother never had enough to eat in the camps. When her daughter wore Dr. Scholl’s sandals as a teen, Anna told her they looked like the shoes she’d worn in captivity.

The continual barrage of memories made her life “hell on wheels,” Zbiral said during a phone interview from her home in Evanston, Ill. “I can’t blame my mother. I’m glad she survived….But those of us who grew up with these constant reminders were screwed up.”

It wasn’t until Zbiral was in her 40s and had two children of her own that she realized the effect her mother’s experiences had on her own life. By that point, she and her husband, Alan Teller, were deeply involved in turning her family’s story into a documentary. The 52-minute film, “In the Shadow of Memory,” produced by Teller, who is Jewish, and Zbiral, who is not, will have its world premiere this Wednesday, June 3, at the Goethe Institute in Los Angeles.

 

Jerri Zbiral with Bozena Vokata, a Lidice survivor.

Initially, when she and her husband began gathering material in the early ’80s, Zbiral intended to write a book about Lidice before her mother and other survivors were gone. She interviewed Anna on audiotape, visited Czechoslovakia several times, talking to survivors, visiting archives. The couple had a background in photography, and a friend, a Bulgarian-Israeli filmmaker called Jacky Comforty, convinced them to make a documentary instead. They raised the money (though they are still deeply in debt) through a non-profit foundation headed by Pierre Sauvage, the famed director of the film, “Weapons of the Spirit.”

Zbiral and Teller narrate “In the Shadow of Memory.” It includes archival footage of the destruction of Lidice, family videos, survivor interviews and scenes from the 50th anniversary memorial on June 10, 1992. Her mother, now 87, and living in Hamilton, Ontario, is heard talking about Ravensbruck, but doesn’t appear on camera.

For Teller, whose Russian-Polish grandparents emigrated to the U.S. at the turn of the century, the story of Lidice and his wife’s family has become his Holocaust, Zbiral said. The couple are raising their children as Jews and belong to a Reform congregation, where their son Max, 14, had his bar mitzvah. Both Max and his sister Emma, 9 1/2, have seen the film, but Zbiral’s half-sister Eva, 61, hasn’t. “She’s buried the story,” Zbiral explains. “It’s her way of survival.” The final version of the film was completed just this month after much editing and re-editing. Making it was difficult, but an important healing experience, Zbiral says. “It was a very, very expensive therapy session.” If there’s a next film, she adds, “it’ll be a comedy.”

“In the Shadow of Memory” will show once only on Wednesday, June 3 at 7 p.m. at the Goethe Institute, 5750 Wilshire Blvd. Admission is free, and Zbiral will participate in a discussion following the film. The event is being presented in conjunction with the “Butterflies Don’t Live Here Anymore” exhibit of children’s drawings from Terezin, and is co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and the Consul General of the Czech Republic. For more information, call (213) 761-8170.

Art

Children’s Art, Children’s Voices

Ruth Gutmannova drew the brilliant sun in glorious red and gold. Margit Koretzova painted butterflies floating lazily in a golden mist above a flower garden. Paul Friedmann wrote a poem about the last butterfly: “So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow…It went away I’m sure because it wished to kiss the world goodbye.”

These children created the pictures and poems at Terezin, a “model camp” in Prague set up by the Nazis to fool foreign visitors about their “humane” treatment of the inmates. Of course, it was all a sham, and Ruth, Margit and Paul, like all but 100 of the 15,000 children who inhabited Terezin in the war years, were shipped east, mostly to Auschwitz, where they perished, along with most of their families. Most, like Ruth, Margit and Paul, died before or just after they had entered their teens.

The youngsters’ hopeful, imaginative spirit — and their sad foreboding — is currently on display in an exhibit of artwork and poetry at the Jewish Federation’s Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. On loan from the Jewish Museum of Prague and co-sponsored by the Consul General of the Czech Republic, the show, titled “Butterflies Don’t Live Here Anymore,” for Paul Friedmann’s poignant poem, will close on June 7 and is open on Wednesdays, Thursdays or by appointment.

“The 42 paintings and drawings are fine reproduct
ions, since the originals were too fragile to travel,” said Marcia Reines Josephy, the museum’s acting director and curator. The art and poems represent only a fraction of the more than 4,000 works that became the only living memorial to the children shipped off to oblivion.

According to the catalog (available for $10 at the exhibit), most of the drawings are by girls, ages 10 to 15. Their teacher, an outstanding artist named Friedl Dicker-Brandejs, gave them themes, but mostly left them to work independently, with gentle guidance. The children drew landscapes, animals, families, flowers and fantasies.

Since the museum remains without a permanent home, the pictures are hung in a downstairs meeting room at the Federation’s offices at 5700 Wilshire Blvd., Room 140. The glassed-in room, dubbed “Gallery 140,” is the best space the museum can offer at this point, since negotiations for its expected quarters on Museum Row fell through. Josephy admitted that, under the circumstances, the museum is feeling a bit homeless but is doing its best to accommodate the community with exhibits and outreach.

Also on view at the gallery is an assemblage piece by Ursula M. Kammer-Fox. Called “Starquality,” it consists of an antique optometrist’s case with empty eyeglass frames, a rusted Master lock, candles and, most unusual of all, a collectible set of Nazi-uniform cards published in England in 1933.

When Kammer-Fox, who is German but not Jewish, came across the cards in an antique shop, she worried that the dealer would think her a Nazi memorabilia collector because of her accent. But she purchased the cards anyway to take them out of circulation and to create something meaningful. The artwork is the result.

Each part of the piece has particular meaning, Kammer-Fox said. For instance, the Master lock is symbolic of the prisons created by the German “Master race,” and the optometrist case and empty glasses frames are a reminder of the glasses taken from Jews before they were sent to the gas chambers.

The artist, who now resides in Santa Monica, said that she named her creation “Starquality” “in tribute to the enduring power of the Star of David,” and decided to donate it to the Jewish Federation.

For more information on the exhibits, call (213) 761-8170.

Mira Zakai Photo by Christian Steiner

Music

New Music for New Audiences

It’s the old story, sighs Neal Brostoff, a high priest of Jewish music in Los Angeles. Contemporary classical music (or new music, as it’s called by people in the know) can’t get any respect. It’s an art form that’s largely ignored, both in Tel Aviv and Los Angeles, laments Brostoff, the Skirball Cultural Center’s resident music specialist.

Last year, the pianist-turned-impresario noted that no one had planned any local new-music events for Israel’s 50th anniversary. So he took matters into his own hands. He has orchestrated a May 29, 11 a.m. panel discussion at the Skirball, “New Music for New Audiences,” which will feature the best minds on two continents.

Participants such as Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed, conductor Steven Mosko and Israeli diva Mira Zakai will probe how multiculturalism affects the new-music biz. They’ll also explore the age-old question, If you plan the concert, will they come?

You’ll get to hear some of the music, at least by top Israeli composers, during a Skirball “New Music From Israel” program on June 2. The alto Zakai will sing pieces written for her by composers such as Russian émigré Mark Kopytman.

Zakai also will perform the 1967 piece “Collage For Mezzo Soprano, Flute, Percussion and Tape”; it’s by Tzvi Avni, one of the old guard of Israel’s avante-garde.

The evening will continue with a chamber piece by Israeli-born Shulamit Ran, the composer-in-residence of the Chicago Symphony and a 1991 winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Moshe Zorman’s quirky “The Lost Tango,” Brostoff says, should show audiences that there is fun in new music.

The producer’s goal is simple. “With all the conflict throughout Israel and the Middle East,” he says, “it’s important for us, now and again, to appreciate how the arts can transcend those difficulties.”

What’s up next for Jewish music maven Brostoff? He’s been asked to sit on the planning committee for the world festival of sacred music called by the Dalai Lama. —Naomi Pfefferman, Entertainment Editor