May 21, 2019

Israeli’s Next Stage: Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ — in English

(From Left) Barry Edelstein and Lior Ashkenazi. Photos courtesy of L.A. Philharmonic

When actors talk about tackling the works of Shakespeare, they talk about richly layered villains, eloquent lovers and the “Everests” of getting through an evening portraying Hamlet, Richard III or King Lear.

Lior Ashkenazi understands the verbiage. The acclaimed Israeli actor, a three-time winner of the Ophir Award (the Israeli equivalent to the Oscar), has taken part in non-English-language performances of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Israel. But now, for a Los Angeles production of “The Tempest,” he will make his American stage debut and perform onstage in English for the first time — in Shakespearean English, no less.

During a recent interview with the Journal, Ashkenazi used a rather earthy expression to describe the challenge he faced in preparing for the production’s lead role — the wizard Prospero.

“I now know what the term ‘I’m sh***ing my pants’ means,” he confessed with a laugh during a rehearsal break at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. “You can’t say no to doing this kind of thing. And I’m having fun now. But I was afraid of it. I thought, ‘Oh, God, why did I say yes? What have I done?’ ”

Although “The Tempest” is limited to three performances from Nov. 8-10, its staging — a joint venture of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre — has been given few limitations. The production features a cast of 27 actors, dancers and opera singers, as well as a choir of 40. Susanna Mälkki will conduct the Philharmonic orchestra in playing this staging’s rarely performed incidental music composed by Jean Sibelius. The company includes Tony-nominated actors Beth Malone and Tom McGowan and Emmy Award winner Peter MacNicol.

At the center of it all will be Ashkenazi, performing in English.

“That’s the most challenging thing in this production for me,” he said. “I’ve never done English [language] theater in my life. My English is very poor. Shakespearean English is even harder. It’s even difficult for American actors to do it. Except for the opera singers, I’m the only foreign guy here, Barry is a very brave man to put me in this production.”

His reference was to Barry Edelstein, the production’s director and the Erna Finci Viterbi Artistic Director at the Old Globe. One of the leading directors of Shakespeare in American theater, Edelstein said he was confident in Ashkenazi’s performance, despite the actor’s inexperience with English.

Edelstein has been a fan of Ashkenazi’s since seeing his work in the 2001 film “Late Marriage,” for which Ashkenazi won his first Ophir award. Edelstein tried to cast Ashkenazi in his production of Nathan Englander’s “The Twenty-Seventh Man” at New York’s Public Theatre in 2012, but the scheduling didn’t work out. However, the two men became friends and informally pledged to work together when the opportunity arose. 

“I’ve never done English [language] theater in my life. My English is very poor. Shakespearean English is even harder.” — Lior Ashkenazi

That opportunity has come with this unique rendition of “The Tempest” — presented as part of the L.A. Philharmonic’s centenary celebration — at a time when Ashkenazi is still riding the momentum from his award-winning turn in the 2017 film “Foxtrot.” Ashkenazi put a film-directing project on hold and spent five weeks rehearsing in San Diego before coming to Los Angeles.

“He’s one of the world’s great actors,” Edelstein said of Ashkenazi. “The thing about the acting culture in Tel Aviv is that actors change back and forth from stage work to camera work routinely. Lior has 30 years of high-level stage experience in everything from modern to classical. He’s got all the chops and tools that a Shakespearean actor needs. He has an incredible gift with language and all the physical awareness skills distinguished by truthfulness and bravery.

“In the American acting community, once a guy gets to be a movie star, it’s hard to entice him back to the theater,” Edelstein added. “Only a few do it, and only very occasionally. Lior has got theater in his blood.” 

A role like Prospero will get any theater lover’s blood boiling. Having had his dukedom stolen by his usurping brother, the vengeful Prospero stirs up a storm to bring the men who wronged him to an enchanted island that Prospero rules with his daughter Miranda and assorted fairies and monsters. The play is one of Shakespeare’s last works, and Prospero, an aging magician who seeks to grant forgiveness near the end of his life, is a favorite among older actors.

But Ashkenazi, who will turn 49 in December, brushes aside the notion that he’s taking on an older man’s role. “[Prospero] has a 19-year-old daughter. How old can you be if you have a 19- year-old daughter? My daughter is 19. It’s not that old.”

Is he finding other personal connections to the role? 

“I can tell you after I’ve finished the show,” he said. “I’m still exploring [Prospero] and trying to figure out who he is.”

“The Tempest” will be performed on Nov. 8 and 9 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 10 at 2 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall. You can purchase tickets here.