“Not by Bread Alone,” the most exotic entry in the Kennedy Center’s 15-production World Stages festival, comes across less as a play or performance piece than as a kind of drama therapy for its actors, 11 players from Israel’s Nalaga’at Theater Deaf-Blind Acting Ensemble.
That these 11 men and women, all of whom are to advanced degrees both deaf and blind, have a desire to share their stories is not in question. Nor is there any doubt that the hour-long show (followed by a half-hour of actor-audience mingling onstage) contains a poignant kernel, having to do in part with our curiosity about how they navigate in and relate to a world they describe as filled with darkness and silence.
But the art into which they are incorporated by Adina Tal, who during two years of development in Israel put together “Not by Bread Alone,” is of such a rudimentary type that the evening never rises to anything more dramatic than a school assembly. Your eyes are of course opened to the possibilities of connection and expression for people facing extraordinary challenges. Your heart, at times, is opened, too. And yet, the bubble in which “Not by Bread Alone” surrounds the actors fails to let us into their existence in a meaningful way.
It’s almost impossible to conceive of all of the difficulties in organizing people so conscious of their own aloneness into an interdependent performing ensemble. So one admires the approach to the daunting logistics of effectively advancing the evening, in this case in the Terrace Theater. The actors each have a human guide to help them navigate the stage, although they just as often find their assigned spots themselves. Some of the performers sign; others speak, and when they do, in Hebrew or in Russian, English translations flash on an overhead screen. At other times, the guides stand at microphones and sing or recite poetry, or assist in the activity that frames the evening: the baking of bread in three working ovens on Eithan Ronel’s activity-room set.
“We invite you to share with us our everyday lives, and we invite you to dream with us,” one of the actors announces. When we meet them, they are seated at a long table laid out across the stage, rolling pieces of dough. Their faces are covered, eerily, with masks as blank as that dough. As a guide beats a drum, cuing the next step, the performers remove their masks and reveal something about themselves: Igor, for example, dreams of watching television; Yuri likes reading books in Braille.
As the bread bakes — and the enticing smell wafts through the theater — the ensemble performs in a series of vignettes. (The show ends with the audience invited up to break fresh-baked bread with the cast.) In one scene, the performers spin umbrellas; in another, they re-create activities on a trip to Italy, during which one actor mimes pizza-making and another puts on dark glasses and brandishes a gun, Mafioso-style. There is something a little empty about these sequences, as they tend to reveal little more than the actors’ skill at following directions.
Far better are the moments in which the performers are not trying to act, but are simply showing you how they manage to help and support one another. Traversing the width of the stage, an actor passes along a line of fellow company members, who each in turn grab his hand and pass him along to the next person. At such instances — of which there are far too few — “Not by Bread Alone” conveys something truly theatrical, and moving.
Conceived and directed by Adina Tal. Music, Amnon Baaham; set, Eithan Ronel; lighting, Ori Rubinstein; costumes, Dafina Grossman. With Rafi Akoa, Shmuel Haberman, Itzik Hanina, Zipora Malca, Igor Osherov, Yuri Osherov, Bat-Sheva Rabansari, Shoshana Segal, Evgenia Shtesky, Yuri Tverdobskyy, Mark Yaroski. Closed Wednesday at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.