Theater J's ‘Dai': One Actress's Perspective on Life in Israel

"My point was to illuminate Israeli stories," Iris Bahr says of her show "Dai." (By Bruce Glikas)
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By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Iris Bahr and Theater J couldn't have chosen a more highly charged moment in which to present Bahr's solo show "Dai (Enough)," in which she plays 11 very different people in a Tel Aviv cafe moments before a suicide bomber blows up the place. The piece, performed at the Studio Theatre's Milton space, launches Theater J's Voices From a Changing Middle East festival tonight through Sunday.

The Israeli American actress ("Curb Your Enthusiasm") and writer ("Dork Whore: My Travels Through Asia as a Twenty-Year-Old Pseudo-Virgin"), who can talk a mile-a-minute, says, "I don't call the show political in the sense that I espouse a specific political view. Some characters are more political than others, and I criticize Israel from an Israeli perspective."

"My point was to illuminate Israeli stories -- the kind of splintered Israeli psyche . . . in light of living in Israel, which is under threat." Bahr adds, "People forget that, and the fact that the rockets have not hit as many targets as [Hamas] would have liked."

Theater J's Artistic Director Ari Roth remarks, "Quite unexpectedly, with everything in the news, this play becomes the collective voice of the people of Israel, not just in Tel Aviv cafes, but in schools and bomb shelters in Sderot. . . . This informs what Israel has been thinking and what has led them to the actions they are taking today."

Bahr, who portrays left- and right-wing Israelis and a Palestinian professor in "Dai," says Palestinian friends saw the show off-Broadway. They "were not offended or taken aback, because that's not the point," she maintains. "Obviously I'm Israeli, so I'm coming from Israeli society. . . . It's not pro and it's not anti. It's people living their lives -- and their opinions."

The idea for the piece came to Bahr as she sat in a Hollywood coffee shop arguing with other actors. "The minute I say I'm Israeli I get barraged with accusations. . . . It doesn't become a discussion, it becomes a shouting match," says Bahr. She wrote "Dai" to "give people a very visceral sense of what it's like to live in a place where you are under threat. It's very easy to criticize from outside."

Her Big Break

"I was just floating," says Zurin Villanueva, 21, describing how "ridiculously happy" she felt after winning Arena Stage's open audition for the role of Yolanda, a disaffected teen character in Arena's revival of "Crowns," to run March 27 to April 26 at the Lincoln Theatre. Villanueva auditioned Jan. 3 with about 60 other young women and triumphed over the 20 who, along with her, were called back.

A senior musical-theater major at Howard University and a graduate of New York's LaGuardia high school for the arts, Villanueva auditioned in October, when Arena held professional tryouts. She wasn't called back and figured that was the end of it. A couple of months later, she says, one of her teachers at Howard announced, " 'They're re-auditioning for "Crowns." They're making it into this big media thing' . . . and I'm like, oh, should I go again?"

During winter break, Villanueva took the bus down from New York and gave it another shot. She sang John Legend's "Refuge," which "has a gospel feel to it" that suits the music in "Crowns." She also performed a dramatic monologue from "Catholic School Girls" by Casey Kurtti.

"I tried to put my little Brooklyn accent on it . . . because I knew the ['Crowns'] character was from Brooklyn. So I was like I need to ham this New York thing up," she says with a laugh.

She might not have been ready for this big break a year ago, says Villanueva. "My voice is the last thing that I had trained. I danced as a little kid. I started acting when I was 14, and I started singing when I was a senior in high school . . . so my growth with my voice has been much needed. . . . This was the perfect time."

'Still in Therapy'

Steve Solomon is back with his bag of shticks. The stand-up comic, cruise ship veteran, Friars Club member and onetime high school physics teacher was a hit last year at Bethesda Theatre with his well-traveled solo show, "My Mother's Italian, My Father's Jewish and I'm in Therapy."

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