Saturday, December 3
Your momma remembers this drama. The Skirball has its last show of “12 Angry Men” this afternoon. The classic courtroom tale about a teenage boy accused of killing his father has been around a while, but gets refreshed by L.A. Theatre Works, with the help of performances by Hector Elizondo, Robert Foxworth, Dan Castellaneta, Armin Shimerman and Richard Kind. A Q-and-A session with noted scholar Rabbi Lee Bycel follows the Saturday performance.
Nov. 30-Dec. 4. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 827-0889.
Sunday, December 4
Today’s concert at the Simon Wiesenthal Center offers an homage in strings to the Romanian Jewish immigrants from 1890-1914, who trekked across Europe to reach ports where they could travel to the United States. Titled “Di Fusgeyers,” and commissioned by the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, the performance is inspired by Stuart Tower’s historical novel, “The Wayfarers” and was composed by Yale Strom.
7 p.m. $15. 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 772-2452.
Monday, December 5
Big-name actors also convene tonight to celebrate another literary classic. “This Is on Me: An Evening of Dorothy Parker” features Broadway veterans Angela Lansbury, Victor Garber, Frances Conroy and others in a staged-play reading of works by the sharp-witted Parker (née Rothschild).
7 p.m. $25-$500. Brentwood Theatre, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Brentwood. R.S.V.P., (213) 365-3500.
Tuesday, December 6
Attend the Skirball’s screening of 1958’s “Marjorie Morningstar” this afternoon, part of their twice-monthly “Classic Films” series. The story of a Jewish young woman, struggling between a traditional upbringing and a desire for a less-conventional life was probably never meant to be provocative. But Jewish feminists haven’t exactly approved of Miss Morningstar over the years. Now you can decide for yourself….
1:30 p.m. Free. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.
Wednesday, December 7
In the nimble hands of Lorel Cornman, Betty Green, Nancy Goodman Lawrence and Mary Beth Schwartzenberger, everything from maps and buttons to fabric and Venetian turpentine become art. The works of these four artists is on view in the University of Judaism’s “Mixed Media” exhibition starting this week.
Public opening is Dec. 4., 2-4 p.m. 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 440-1201.
Thursday, December 8
Old world mixes with new, as playwrights Ross Pavis and Howard Teichman premier their play, “Simcha.” The story about a Jewish beggar and storyteller imbued with magical powers might as well have been written by Sholom Aleichem. But, in fact, the stories in the play are all original, based on the “old country” superstitions the playwrights’ parents and grandparents believed.
Limited three-week run closes Dec. 18. $9-$18. Theatre 40, Reuben Cordova Theatre, 241 Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills High Campus. R.S.V.P., (310) 364-0535.
Friday, December 9
Playwright Tom Dudzick offers up an interfaith story for the holidays, complete with Christmas Eve miracle. The play is “Greetings,” and tells the tale of an atheist Jewish girl who accompanies her Catholic boyfriend home for Christmas, where she meets his cast of characters family, which includes his very devout parents and mentally challenged 30-year-old brother. Could hilarity not ensue?
$16. Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood. R.S.V.P., (818) 700-4878.
No Religious Bias in Racy ‘Bodice Rippers’
Wiesenthal Larger Than Life on Screen
Simon Wiesenthal, whose dogged persistence led to the capture of approximately 1,100 accused Nazi war criminals, was the quintessential larger-than-life figure filmmakers crave. While there were some less-than-distinguished films made about him over the years, they were outweighed by fine documentaries, such as “The Art of Remembrance,” Oscar-nominated features such as “The Boys From Brazil” and several thoughtful telepics.
For Rick Trank, director of Moriah Films, the in-house documentary division of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the first film about Simon Wiesenthal “that comes to mind” is “Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story,” a 1989 HBO picture starring Ben Kingsley as the Nazi hunter.
“It was unusual for HBO to have made the investment without a theatrical release,” said Trank, marveling at the production values and “the care that HBO put into it.” He pointed out that Kingsley “spent time getting to know Simon.”
While some admirers have envisioned Wiesenthal as a Jewish John Wayne or James Bond, the diminutive Kingsley, who has played numerous Jewish characters in his film career, including Meyer Lansky in “Bugsy” and Fagin in the current “Oliver Twist,” depicts him as a much more modest man, frail after the camps, dedicated to his work, not given to swagger or seduction.
Up all night in his dark office surrounded by voluminous files, he almost conjures Bartleby the scrivener. We often see high-angle shots of him, as if we are spying on him.
Told in flashback, the film begins with a closeup of sunflowers in a field on a sunny day, and then we see an image of Wiesenthal, wearing the pinstriped uniform of a prisoner. His back is positioned against the back of a bloodied, bandaged Nazi, and the two men, arms tied to each other, struggle to free themselves. The scene is Wiesenthal’s nightmare, so haunted is he by a memory of visiting a bloodied, bandaged Nazi on his deathbed.
Images of the hospital scene re-surface throughout the film, as Wiesenthal confronts whether he made the right decision in not forgiving a man who gunned down Jews trapped inside a building that had been set on fire. Wiesenthal can never satisfactorily answer the moral dilemma of whether or not he was right in walking away without pardoning a dying, tormented shell of a man.
In Wiesenthal’s troubled dream, the shining sunflowers appear almost grotesque, but they are a reminder that there can still be beauty even in the midst of the Holocaust.
Flowers also play a role in “Max and Helen,” a 1990 TNT production starring Martin Landau as Wiesenthal. Based on Wiesenthal’s memoir, it tells the true story of two young Jews, Max, played by Treat Williams, and Helen, played by Alice Krige, who find each other after 20 years of separation following the Holocaust. The first time we see Helen, she gathers a bouquet of lilies, once again yellow flowers, vibrant and alive, but soon she and Max are taken to the camps, where she remains with her frail sister while Max escapes.
According to Trank, who won an Oscar for “The Long Way Home,” a 1997 documentary about Jewish refugees journeying to Israel after the Holocaust, “Max and Helen” represents the one time that Wiesenthal, who dedicated his life to fighting anti-Semitism, chose not to prosecute a war criminal “because it would harm the living more than bring justice to the dead.”
As it turns out, Helen has been raped by the Nazi commandant and has had a child, who is a dead ringer for the father. The disquieting presence of this seeming Nazi doppelganger initially unnerves Max, when he first sees Helen again.
Ultimately, Max realizes the truth of something Wiesenthal has told him, that nations cannot be blamed collectively; each person must be assessed individually. At the end of the film, Max decides to reunite with Helen and embrace his new life with her and his Germanic stepchild, while Wiesenthal backs off from pursuing the former commandant.
Trank said of Landau, “Physically, he didn’t look like Simon,” pointing out that Landau was “6 feet 4 and skinny, while Wiesenthal was 5 feet 10 and portly, but he captured an essence of him.” He plays him as a kind of Dr. Freud, comforting Max as they engage in an all-night therapy session, in which Wiesenthal slowly extracts bits and pieces of the story, which plays out largely through flashbacks.
By contrast, in the 1978 picture, “The Boys From Brazil,” Sir Laurence Olivier, essaying Herr Lieberman, a character based on Wiesenthal, portrayed the Nazi hunter as a “sort of a bumbling guy. That wasn’t Simon. Simon was very focused, had a photographic memory.” Trank noted that Wiesenthal was “doing his work before people had computers. He had a teeny office, no money,” yet successfully traced all those Nazis.
Based on Ira Levin’s novel, “The Boys From Brazil” shows us Wiesenthal as Mr. Magoo, water dripping from the ceiling of his office, his rent unpaid, chaos all around him. Olivier speaks with an authentic German accent, yet it’s so high-pitched and world weary that he almost sounds like a German version of an older Truman Capote, burnt out after all his friends had abandoned him.
Despite his bumbling nature, Olivier’s character does indeed track down Dr. Mengele, played by Gregory Peck. In the fictional film, Mengele has masterminded a scheme, years in the making, to clone and breed a new Hitler. In order to replicate the environmental surroundings of the young Fuhrer, he must murder 94 Nordic men, all aged 65, who have blue-eyed, black-haired sons who are about to turn 14.
After the film’s suspenseful turns, Mengele is finally killed, and Olivier’s Lieberman refuses to give a young Jewish freedom fighter the information that will enable him to find and kill the boys. The Nazi hunter will not allow innocent people of German stock to be killed.
In reality, Mengele was never captured by Wiesenthal or any other Nazi hunter. His remains were found in South America, where he apparently drowned.
Though Wiesenthal was portrayed by Kingsley, Landau and Olivier — all Oscar winners — the performance that may come closest to the actual legend, who did indeed help the Mossad capture SS leader Adolph Eichmann, is that of lesser-known actor Shmuel Rodensky in the 1974 film, “The Odessa File.”
In that picture, Wiesenthal’s character has a small role, appearing in only two scenes, but Rodensky inhabits him in a way that his more famous colleagues did not. First of all, unlike Kingsley, Landau and Olivier, Rodensky physically resembled the bearish Wiesenthal. Both of them bore a girth that recalls Ariel Sharon, a fullness that suggested fortitude and a life well lived.
But more than the physical resemblance, there’s a poise and savvy, the way his smile conveys that he has seen it all, and that nothing will surprise him. This Wiesenthal understands that all men, even an idealist like Jon Voight’s freelance journalist, have motives and allegiances that may not match his own.
That is why he makes a photocopy of a picture of Roschmann, the film’s villain, rather than turning over his lone copy to Voight’s character. He’s too sophisticated to presume that this well-intentioned writer will finish the job.
Wiesenthal served as an adviser to that film, which is set in Germany in 1963, just after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a metaphor, perhaps a bit too heavy-handed, for the loss of innocence in the world. The plot is propelled into motion with the suicide that same night of a Holocaust survivor who leaves a diary.
That document prompts Voight’s young German writer to hunt down the one-time butcher of Riga, who murdered not only Jews but also Germans who disobeyed him. Along the way, Voight comes into contact with Mossad agents who train him. With their help, he infiltrates the Odessa, a secret society of former SS officers, who are developing a missile-tracking system for the Egyptians, who plan a nuclear attack against Israel.
Like Mengele, in real life, Roschmann was never extradited or killed. Responsible for murdering perhaps as many as 70,000 Jews, Roschmann reportedly died in Paraguay in 1977.
At the end of the film, Wiesenthal pores over the Odessa file provided to him by a German, which calls to mind a line from earlier in the film that “people are not evil; only individuals are evil.” In the film, the line is not spoken by Wiesenthal’s character, but it echoes the famous mantra of the real-life Holocaust survivor.
Exhibit Links Shoah, Cambodia Genocide
Batsheva Blurs Artistic Borders
During “Naharin’s Virus” a provocatative dance/performance piece that the Batsheva Dance company will excerpt this week at UCLA, a dancer holds chalk in her hand, dragging it through her body movements: Arching her back, outstretching her arm, she trails Hebrew words on a blackboard.
In the piece, the mood changes from torturously languid to controlled chaos in an instant, and while its message is ambiguous, its energy is, like the title, viral — easy to catch and hard to shake.
“Naharin’s Virus” (2001), a melding of performance art and dance, was inspired by the play “Offending the Audience” by Austrian playwright Peter Handke.
This weekend, 15 dancers from Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company will perform an excerpt from “Naharin’s Virus” and eight other works by chief choreographer Ohad Naharin at UCLA’s Royce Hall. This ensemble of dances is titled “Deca Dance” and it reflects the stimulating avant-garde style that has been associated with Batsheva since Naharin assumed his role of artistic director in 1990, and then house choreographer in 2003.
Before that, the 40-year-old Israeli company that was founded by Martha Graham and Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild was languishing without true stylistic direction. Naharin, a dancer by training whose works have been produced by dance companies all over the world, infused the company with his hurtling energy. Batsheva became synonymous with intrepidity, innovation and, in some cases, controversy.
“I think the strength of the work is my inability to describe it,” said Naharin, who spoke with The Journal from his hotel in Montreal. “It is not about conveying an idea, it is about experiencing. It is like if you ask me to describe the smell of fresh air — this is the same. It is something you have to experience.”
Naharin said that his work is about virtuosity and efficiency.
“It is about trying to diffuse the difference of what is classical, what is sacred, what is conventional, what is mathematic, what is scientific, what is beautiful and what is awkward,” he said. “It cannot be put into one category, [because] it is about the diffusion of the borders between things and creating something that is right for the work. My work shouldn’t and will not be identified with religious, national or ethnic connotations.”
Despite swearing off connotations, Naharin’s work was not created in nor is it reflective of a political vacuum. He is an outspoken critic of the Israeli government’s conservative policies. He favors land for peace and dividing Jerusalem, and he is aware of his work pushing boundaries. He has been castigated by some of the ultra-Orthodox for blending the sacred with the profane by using traditional music, such as the Passover melody “Echad Mi Yodeah?” (“Who Knows One?”) as the music for some of his more provocative performances. In 2001, at the height of some of the worst politically inspired violence in Israel’s history, Naharin collaborated with Israeli Arab composer Habib Alla Jamal to create “Naharin’s Virus.”
“I saw Jamal and his musicians in a performance and really loved their music and it worked, it clicked [with my dance],” he said. “For me, life and politics really mingle, and what is personal and what is political also mingle. For me [collaborating with Jamal] was about meeting a very talented group of musicians, but I cannot detach myself from the connotation of it. I was aware of what it could create, I am aware of the associations, but it was not the heart of my decision. The political stuff is a byproduct, not the aim of my work.”
For the 17 dancers in the company, who come from all over the world, Naharin’s work is allows them a freedom of movement.
“Naharin is a partner,” said Yaniv Nagar, a former dancer with the company and current company manager and stage manager. “If you do these pieces you have to give from yourself, and have a lot of creativity in yourself to express it. I was in a neoclassical company before, and there everything was set. [Batsheva] was not just movement, but an opportunity to bring something personal to it. We don’t carry any political flags, we just do art in Israel and individually everyone can connect to it in his own way.”
The Batsheva Dance Company’s “Deca Dance.” 8 p.m. on
March 19 and 20 at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus. For tickets, $17-$45, call
(310) 825-2101 or visit www.uclalive.org .
7 Days In Arts
Staging a Body of Work
What’s a nice Jewish feminist performance artist to do when she’s heavily covered in tattoos? She creates a solo piece, “Jewess Tattoess,” exploring the conflict between her heritage and her body.
In her multimedia show, Marisa Carnesky examines the Jewish tattoo taboo by fusing elements of Yiddish melodrama, Victorian sideshows and Grand Guignol theater. She becomes the night demon Lilith, a possessed preteen and the Whore of Babylon, who in the piece is indisposed and on vacation.
“She’s sick and tired of women’s sexuality being demonized in traditional cultures, so she’s off sunbathing with her friends, Salome and the Queen of Sheba,” the sunny Carnesky, 32, said from her London home.
The character allows her to comment on “the clash between religions like Judaism and the choices we make as modern, feminist women.”
Carnesky noticed the conflict as a girl while sitting in the “ladies’ gallery” of her modern Orthodox synagogue: “It was hot and uncomfortable, and all about the hats and the outfits, and you couldn’t really see what the men were doing,” said the artist, whose pieces include “Carnesky’s Ghost Train.”
By age 15, she’d abandoned her Habonim youth-group friends for “arty-punky” circles at her multicultural public school. While she dyed her hair purple to immerse herself in the horror-rock Gothic scene, she refused to wear the de rigeur crucifix, favoring instead a Star of David.
“I wanted to be a Jewish Goth,” she said.
Jewish concerns were also on her mind when she was 19, as she began acquiring body art based on photographs of Victorian tattooed ladies.
“I was obsessed by Holocaust imagery of bodies piled up, their humanity taken away,” she said. “My macabre thought was that if that ever happened to me, they wouldn’t be able to steal my personality because my body is so tattooed.”
Carnesky was prompted to turn such issues into “Jewess Tattoess” around 1999: “I had met a number of Jews in the theater and felt I had a lot in common with them,” she said. She studied Jewish folk tales, books on the Torah prohibition against tattooing and photographs of shtetls and showgirls; one picture depicted Jewish silent actress Theda Bara covered in jewelry as the biblical temptress Salome.
“The very sexual, decorated woman is reviled in most cultures, and I was looking for characters that societies have created to guide people away from them,” she said.
“Jewess Tattoess” has guided Carnesky back to Judaism by introducing her to alternative subcultures such as Heeb magazine.
So what’s next for this Jewish performance artist?
“Maybe a Star of David tattoo,” she said.
The show runs Oct. 1 and Oct. 3-5 as part of UCLA Live’ssecond annual International Theatre Festival; www.uclalive.org or (310) 825-2101.
Hitler’s Conductor: Man or Monster?
Carlyle Discusses Dangers of ‘Hitler’
Robert Carlyle, of "The Full Monty" and "Angela’s Ashes" fame, gives a striking performance in the title role of the CBS miniseries "Hitler: The Rise of Evil." The film, which airs Sunday and Tuesday (May 18 and 20) at 9 p.m., focuses on Hitler’s life from Munich beer hall orator in 1920, through his political machinations within the Nazi party and against the Weimar Republic, ending in 1934 with the consolidation of all state power in his hands. Speaking with a pronounced Scottish burr (which he suppresses in the film) from his home in his native Glasgow, the 42-year-old actor discussed the challenges and rewards of his role with The Jewish Journal.
Jewish Journal: What were your thoughts when you decided to take the role of Hitler?
Robert Carlyle: At first I was frightened because I realized the potential dangers and pitfalls. But I decided I wouldn’t do a carbon copy of Hitler. I would do my own interpretation, that I could explore him like any other character. Then a window opened up and I wasn’t frightened any more.
JJ: One of your fellow cast members, Peter Stormare, said, "I can’t imagine being Bobby [Carlyle] and having to look at himself as Hitler every day because of all the images that flash before your eyes, all the time." What were your feelings?
RC: Once shooting began, in my quiet moments, I tried to empty myself of the character on a daily basis, rather than store it up for four months. Also, as Hitler, I didn’t look at all like myself. I had the mustache, a false nose, cheek pieces and more weight as Hitler got older.
JJ: What was your working day like when you were shooting the film in and around Prague?
RC: It took around one-and-a-half hours for the makeup and I worked 14-15 hours on an average day. As we went further along, the days got even longer.
JJ: I understand that you were offered the role of Hitler three times before you took this one.
RC:Yes, the first time was about three years ago but it didn’t come to anything. Another time was for the film "Max" [in which Hitler was played by Noah Taylor]. Five months before I started the CBS job, I worked for three months on a BBC television production which started with Hitler in the bunker and we flashed back to his earlier life. So I had already learned a good deal about the character.
JJ: I believe the BBC project was canceled, partly due to strong Jewish protests.
RC: I’m not sure. I heard that there were funding problems because the American studio partner backed out. I don’t know about Jewish protests, but if there were any I would understand that.
JJ: One of the concerns raised when CBS announced the project was that any good actor would try to find the human elements in Hitler and therefore make him more sympathetic.
RC: It wasn’t a question of searching for the human traits. I didn’t have to find that to get close to the character. I thought Hitler was very cunning and had a belief of you’re-either-for-me-or-against-me. I tried to focus on these things.
JJ: Were you aware of the objections raised by some Jewish spokesmen and organizations in the early stages of the CBS project?
RC: Not at all. I didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes. But I knew from the beginning that if I gave as honest a portrayal as I could, it would be all right. I didn’t want to upset anyone.
JJ: After you finished shooting, did you go through a decompression stage?
RC: Yes, I took off and spent a month in the country. A few weeks ago, I went back to London for some final dubbing and suddenly saw "my" Hitler on the monitor. And I said to myself, "Jesus, what a pompous little prick" and then, "You’ve done your job."
Rabbis, Scholars OK CBS ‘Hitler’ Pic
‘Dance’s’ Conflict Is Center Stage
In Mirra Bank’s unflinching documentary, “The Last Dance,” legendary children’s author Maurice Sendak passionately describes the Holocaust piece he hopes to create with members of the acrobatically virtuostic Pilobolus Dance Company. He envisions a train station, a menacing figure and refugees. He imagines a double bill with the children’s opera, “Brundibar,” once performed at Terezin. “It’s [my] loyalty to all the dead,” said the 75-year-old author (“Where the Wild Things Are”), who lost numerous relatives in the Holocaust.
During such conversations, Pilobolus’ three artistic directors squirm uncomfortably. “I just don’t find waiting around at the train station … very interesting,” the troupe’s Jonathan Wolken said. The directors suggest the story shouldn’t be concrete but should evolve through improvisation.
“But I’m the storyteller,” Sendak retorts at one point.
The tense moment is one of many Bank captured after Pilobolus members invited Sendak and his partner, writer-director Arthur Yorinks, to become their first outside collaborators in 1998.
Speaking by telephone from his Connecticut home, the author and set designer told The Journal he agreed, in part, because he loves collaborating with dancers and Pilobolus’ work isn’t unlike his own. “Their playful, almost shameful use of the body reminds me of babies and children,” he said.
But as the partnership got underway, Bank captured the stormy, often hilarious clash of egos, as well as the vibrant creative process. In the film, the collaborators argue about the piece’s title, whether it should specifically reference the Holocaust or involve nudity. “Those who went to the ovens were stripped naked,” Sendak said of the nudity.
“It’s a kind of stupid striptease,” Wolken said.
The edgy, cinema verite style film joins a budding subgenre of movies, including Matthew David’s 1998 documentary, “Dancemaker,” that explore the sometimes prickly choreographic process.
Looking back on the Pilobolus partnership — captured by Bank’s handheld digital camera — Sendak said he was “baffled by their tenacity, and I’m sure they’d say the same of me.
“It was unpleasant,” he said of the tension. “I don’t like getting angry or in an emotional condition, because the Holocaust subject was emotional enough.”
Wolken, who also lost family in the camps, sees things differently. “Flying sparks can vulcanize a project,” he told The Journal. “And Maurice loves a good argument. It energizes him. If he doesn’t have one, he manufactures it.”
“The Last Dance” began when Bank, an acclaimed PBS filmmaker whose work often involves Jewish themes, attended a Pilobolus performance in summer 1998. “I asked [artistic director] Michael Tracy what the company was doing next, and he said it would be a dark, Eastern European, possibly Holocaust-driven Grimm’s fairy tale with Maurice Sendak,” she recalled. “I said, ‘My God, that sounds like a film.'”
Over the next eight months, Bank videotaped 125 hours of the collaboration, which sometimes seemed destined for failure. After one particularly turbulent session, Sendak dejectedly told Bank he felt “bumped off the rails.” At 11 p.m. that night, he called her and threatened to quit.
“I think Maurice thought he could control the process more than he did,” Bank said. Of why Wolken became his primary antagonist, she said, “within Pilobolus, his role is often that of provocateur.”
The filmmaker found the discord “gut wrenching. I felt deeply connected to everyone involved,” she said. “I also had a great deal personally invested in the project, and there were a number of times I thought it might fall apart.”
Instead, the tense partnership eventually yielded a powerful dance piece, “A Selection,” which received rave reviews in New York in 1999.
Bank’s documentary also received rave reviews, not just from the critics but from the protagonists involved. “However, I cringed the first two or three times I saw it,” Sendak said. “I didn’t like to see myself carrying on like that. I became the big … noisy Jew and Jonathan became the uptight, ‘No, I don’t want to go there,’ Jew.”
Wolken, for his part, called “The Last Dance” “a great film. But it presents just a narrow slice of what went on. In a good movie, you have to have conflict, and Mirra searched for it. As a good filmmaker, she at times manufactured it.”
Both Sendak and Wolken told The Journal they are old friends, which isn’t depicted in the movie. They said they’d collaborate again in an instant. But Bank isn’t so sure. “Everyone was proud of the dance piece they created, but they also may never work again,” she said. “Which is why I called the film, ‘The Last Dance.'”
The film opens April 24 at the American Cinemateque in Los Angeles, coinciding with Pilobolus’ performance of different works at the Ahmanson May 2 and 4. Bank and Pilobolus members will appear for a discussion after the “Last Dance” screening at noon on May 3. For information, call (323) 461-2020. n
Oded Fehr’s shining moment came when an Arab recently unrolled his car window and shouted, "You make us Middle Easterners proud!"
He was referring to the Israeli actor’s performance as dashing desert warrior Ardeth Bay, Brendan Fraser’s Mummy-busting partner in "The Mummy" and "The Mummy Returns." "Given the political situation, that was the nicest compliment I could get," says the star of the new NBC drama "UC: Undercover," who was voted "Sexiest Import" by People in 1999. "Arabs have been unfairly typecast as terrorists, and I was proud to play one who was heroic."
After twice portraying the saber-slashing Bay, it was Fehr who was typecast. Requests poured in for him to play mysterious foreigners; he declined them all. "If I wasn’t careful, I was going to be forever doing ethnic types," he says.
When "UC: Undercover" creator Shane Salerno asked him to play an FBI unit leader named Frank Donovan, Fehr jumped at the chance. For the 30-year-old Tel Aviv native, it was a break as important as "The Mummy," which he landed just six months after graduating from England’s Old Vic Theater School in 1997.
"I had no idea about what I was doing on ‘The Mummy,’" confides Fehr, who had to take crash courses in horsebackriding and swordfighting. "I was convinced that the director hated me." Instead, director Stephen Sommers was so impressed that he expanded Fehr’s role and rewrote the ending so Bay wasn’t killed.
For "UC: Undercover," the training went way beyond swordfighting. Fehr studied with real S.W.A.T. team members (his experience in the Israeli Navy during the Gulf War and working in El Al security helped).
He also interviewed FBI undercover agents and was struck by how similar their job was to his own. "They would talk about their ‘role’ and learning their lines and when they’re ‘in character,’" he says. "That was a revelation."
You Don’t Know Jack
Performance as Life, Life as Performance
I have been thinking about “performance” for about two weeks now — its virtues, its limitations, its prevalence even when unintended. In short, I have been trying to figure out what makes a performance work, what makes it succeed.
This question of performance was stimulated for me by Lisa Kron’s one-woman theater piece “2.5 Minute Ride” currently playing through March 5 at the Tiffany Theater (8532 Sunset Blvd.; 310-289-2999). It’s an emotional and engaging play, one that alternates between sadness and antic humor as Kron carries forward a series of separate — though related — stories: About the trip she took with her father to Auschwitz, where his parents were killed; about a family outing to an amusement park and resort in Ohio, which served her and her Michigan family as their holiday retreat; and about her brother’s wedding to an Orthodox young woman in Brooklyn.
Along the way she offers some wonderfully funny side trips that touch on everything from her lesbian attitudes and lifestyle to a touching and satiric glimpse of her mother’s concern with age, which results in her refusal to pose for any photograph. In all, it is a 70-minute ride that leaves the audience a bit breathless.
After watching Kron’s performance, I began to mull over just what I had seen. Autobiography to be sure. Also a complex story — actually, short stories — that owed much to the author’s voice or point of view, but which also relied, for effect, on the pacing and the juxtaposition of sequences about her father, her brother and her own irreverent friends.
Kron, like the monologist Spaulding Gray, who will appear at the Alex Theater April 16, is actually attempting on stage to create a first person portrait for us, one that, while humorous and exaggerated, nevertheless is an authentic creation of self: A projection that purports to let it all hang out.
Her self-portrait is also most definitely Jewish: Wry and satirical in her presentation of others, mocking in her own turn before the mirror. Hers is a world defined by Jews; where gentiles, when they intrude into the story, are always kept at bay; they are strangers who either misunderstand Jews or mean us harm. It succeeds I think because the piece seems honest in its account and generous in its willingness to be vulnerable. We trust the performer’s voice.
As it happens, the next two weeks, of my life at least, were filled with performances.
First, there was an evening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art where actor-director Tim Robbins interviewed Studs Terkel, our leading oral historian and writer-interviewer par excellence. Terkel is 87 and Robbins just about half his age, so it was puzzling at first to see the two in juxtaposition. But then Terkel — who was the star of the evening — explained that he had appeared in the Chicago production of the play “Cradle Will Rock” in 1938; Robbins of course recently directed a film version of the play’s somewhat aborted opening in New York City in 1937.
Terkel sketched scenes for us from his life in answer to questions posed by Robbins. It was a dazzling evening (Jan. 20) with Robbins graciously settling into the supporting role of straight man. We were presented with a portrait of the storyteller as performer. We caught glimpses of Terkel refracted through his encounters and interviews with others — both high and low — and bore witness to his off-the-cuff comments about people and politics in 20th century America. The autobiography was more literal than Kron’s theater piece, and yet less direct. It swept us along because of Terkel’s personality. We could not get enough of his sly wit, his delight in the people he had met and interviewed through the years and his desire to share his enthusiasms. He engaged in a compact with us, and we in turn were grateful to him for that stance.
A few evenings later, there was another “performance” that caught my attention: A dialogue on Syria and Israel at the University of Judaism, with two Mideast experts, UCLA professor Steven Spiegel and former Jerusalem Post editor David Makovsky. No autobiography here. Just two knowledgeable professionals sharing their fervor with an audience of about 400 as they related anecdotes and insights for those assembled, analyzing the politics and players in Damascus, Jerusalem and Washington. It was an evening filled with passion — about something outside the performers, namely journalism and politics. I admired the performances because of the unfeigned excitement of the two men, who in fact were experts not actors. What made the occasion work was that they were neither reluctant nor afraid to put themselves at risk as they shared their stories with us.
Finally, a written performance, this one by the Los Angeles Times. Last Monday (Jan. 31), the Times published a brief five paragraph correction to one of its Column One articles that had appeared on the newspaper’s front page. That story dealt with Holocaust deniers who questioned the extermination of European Jews by Nazi Germany.
Now the Times, on page three, was notifying its readers — under the heading For the Record — that its original story had contained a number of factual errors. These included: mistakes on the number who died; on the academic respectability of some of the deniers, who it turns out were disavowed by their universities; and on the accurate claim that victims’ remains were made into lampshades — a claim rejected by the reporter in the original story, but now affirmed by the editor.
No mention was made by the Times of the alleged objectivity of the reporting, which attempted to balance two competing “equally justified” points of view, or of the reporter’s slant, which emphasized the price deniers paid for their exercise of free speech. Nor was any explanation given as to why the corrections to the record had taken 24 days to assemble — the Column One story appeared Jan. 7. For the Record tended to be spare in its account, without context or elaboration; a correction that lacked a sense of accountability. In all, I would say, not a stellar performance, not a class act. — Gene Lichtenstein
The Artistry of ‘Art’
“Tongue of a Bird,” now playing at the Mark Taper Forum, is a confoundedly difficult play. I’m not sure whether that’s due to this reviewer’s denseness or to the layers upon layers of meaning and tortured psychological undertones offered by playwright Ellen McLaughlin.
In its simplest synopsis, the all-female play is about search-and-rescue pilot Maxine (a strapping Cherry Jones), who is importuned by a mother (Diane Verona) to find her 12-year old daughter (Ashley Johnson), kidnapped in the wintry mountains of the Adirondacks.
After days of searching, Maxine finds the girl — dead.
But that’s only the framework, or, if you will, the metaphor, for the much more complex searches that propel the characters. To unravel the motivations and repressions of the play’s five women forces viewers into their own searches for comprehension, along trails sometimes fascinating and illuminating, at other times maddeningly convoluted.
Matters aren’t made easier by the reappearance of Maxine’s dead mother (Sharon Lawrence), who swoops in on wires from up high, much as did playwright McLaughlin when she played the airborne Angel in Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.”
Some welcome relief is provided by the astringent humor of Maxine’s Polish grandmother. She is played by Marian Seldes, who shines in a uniformly fine cast, directed by Lisa Peterson.
“Tongue of a Bird” continues through Feb. 7. Call (213) 628- 2772 for tickets. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor
Which Side Are You On?
British director Tyrone Guthrie, a non-Jew, oncesaid: “If all the Jews were to leave the American theater, it wouldclose down about next Thursday.”
Maybe that explains why there’s so much Jewishtheater now in Los Angeles. Here’s a roundup of the offerings: Wecan’t guarantee they’re good, but we can
The ladies of “Backstreet,” at the SantaMonica Playhouse.
* “Backstreet,” at the Santa Monica Playhouse,through April 26. You can find patrons arguing in the lobby over theeyebrow-raising premise of this musical: It’s set in a Jewishbrothel, circa 1905. The authors based the play on a story by theYiddish author Sholom Asch, and, yes, they say, there were Jewish brothels in New Yorkat the turn of the century. “Backstreet” follows the lives and lovesof an émigré family of Backstreet Ladies, offering adifferent vision of the American dream. Admission is $16 to $20. Forinformation, call (310) 394-9779, ext. 1.
* “Sing! A Musical Journey,” at UCLA’s FreudPlayhouse, through March 15. In his one-man show, actor-pianistHershey Felder plays the piano and tells stories of survival.
* “When the Rabbi Lied,” at the Lee StrasbergTheatre Institute, through March 15. Hildy Brook’s comedy-drama abouta woman wrestling with spiritual dilemmas as she explores her Jewishroots.
* The West Coast Jewish Theatre’s “YiddishkeitIII,” at the University of Judaism, on March 25. This Borscht-Beltkind of an evening features Catskillian comics, a cabaret act,Yiddish songster Hale Porter and more. Tickets are $25. (310)476-9777, ext. 535.
* “A Different Springtime,” at the Actors’Playhouse in Long Beach, March 14 through April 19. In this play by87-year-old Joseph Stein, the protagonist wants his mother, a PolishHolocaust survivor, to get married, and, thus, he arranges for her tomeet a Landsmann. Problem is, she thinks Mr. Sakamoto, the youngapartment-building manager, is trying to seduce her. Everything getsmore confusing when Myriam the Matchmaker enters the picture. Ticketsare $15. (213) 660-8587.
* “Dinner at Grandpa’s,” at the Wooden-O Theatrein West Los Angeles, opens March 20. Bobby Wittenberg’s comedy is setat an annual family dinner that celebrates Grandpa Sidney’s heartattack, when grandson David asks about the family history. Grandpainsists that he lived the American dream — until David inadvertentlycalls up the ghost of his late grandmother. Tickets are $15. (213)612-5229.
* “Chaim’s Love Song,” at the Bitter TruthTheatre, North Hollywood, through April 26. An Irish-American facultywife from Iowa, in culture shock since moving to Brooklyn, finds anunusual friend in an elderly Jew. Tickets are $15. (818)755-7900.
* “Labor Pains,” at the Victory Theatre, Burbank,opens April 3. In Lisa Diana Shapiro’s comedy, Rose (aka Jake) ispregnant via artificial insemination by her guy best friend. She’sstraight and Jewish; he’s gay and Italian. So how will they raisetheir child? Tickets are $18 to $20. (818) 841-5421.
* “I Know You Are, But What Am I?” at the TiffanyTheatre, through April 21. Jason is Jewish, smart, twentysomething,attractive, when he meets Susan on a blind date. Thereafter, you’llfollow their dating hell as they do anything to avoid the word”relationship.” Tickets are $15. (310) 289-2999.
The King of Klezmer
By Skip Heller
Naftule Brandwine is the Louis Armstrong ofAmerican klezmer. He didn’t invent the style, but he crystallizedevery element of it, to the point of embodying it. Just as everybluegrass banjoist comes out of Earl Scruggs, so does every klezmerclarinetist come from Brandwine.
Of course, jazz sells more, so while Armstrong wasanthologized often and well in his lifetime, Brandwine’s recordedlegacy waited until the corpse had been 34 years cold for acomprehensive collection, “King of the Klezmer Clarinet NaftuleBrandwine” (Rounder Records).
Brandwine arrived on these shores in 1913,bringing with him a clarinet style modeled after the Jewishviolinists he had heard. “Heisser Bulgar” opens the disc, and is aperfect introduction to Brandwine’s trick bag — bent notes,chirping, a nearly vocal vibrato, and a command of the clarinet thatremains impressive even today.
The tunes are, predictably, mostly fast-paced OldWorld-styled bulgars and freilachs, seemingly uninfluenced by American music. Surprisingly,little here sounds noticeably dated, which is more than one can claimfor most prewar instrumental music. Largely, this is because klezmeritself resists change. But, also, it is because this music stilleffectively telecasts its conviction, and is still excitinglistening.
Brandwine’s antics are often given more attentionthan his music. His ego-and-alcohol-laden exploits make for greatanecdotes. Brandwine would often wear a red-white-and-blue Uncle Samcostume, and would hang around his neck a small neon sign that read”The Naftule Brandwine Orchestra.”
Legend has it that, one night, he sweat so muchthat he was nearly electrocuted by the sign. His drinking,unreliability, egomania, temper and inability to read music cost himin the long run. In fact, by the mid-1920s, his standing as “king ofthe Jewish clarinet” was becoming questionable.
Rival clarinetist Dave Tarras eclipsed Brandwine.He carried himself with more dignity, could read music and was a morereliable citizen. Tarras’ style of klezmer clarinet was more refined,his tone less rough, his ability to read music making him eligiblefor more kinds of employ-ment, and he recorded well into the 1950s.Also, Tarras was alive and able to play during the late-1970s klezmerrevival. This conspiracy of elements did much to assure recognition.But Brandwine is the more exhilarating of the two. (Tarras wasanthologized definitively in 1992, with the essential”Yiddish-American Klezmer Music 1925-56″ disc, available on YazooRecords).
Also, Brandwine recorded first, and he almostsingle-handedly made klezmer an American-Jewish expression. He wasthe first major, defining soloist.
Although his 1963 death went largely unnoticed,his vibrant, sparkling playing is still much of the template forklezmer music. These 25 cuts on the anthology are dinosaur tracks.The beast himself may be gone, but the footprints are just too big tobe filled by anything that now stalks our terrain.
“King of the Klezmer Clarinet” is not onlyindispensable to every Jewish music library, but also any party. Thatis what klezmer music intended to be for in the first place.
Skip Heller is a Los Angeles-based writer andmusician.