A SIMPLE TALE by S.Y. Agnon; adapted by Shiomo Nitzan and Itzhak Goren; directed by Yossi Yzraely; with Moshe Berker, Lia Koenig, Eliezer Jung, Ethel Kovinska, Sandra Saden, Yael Pearl, Nachum Buchman and Eli Gorenstein. At the Baltimore School for the Arts through June 14.
To see the Habimah National Theatre of Israel performing S.Y. Agnon's "A Simple Tale" is to see the preservation of several traditions at once.
Habimah began as a Hebrew-language theater in Moscow during the "anything-is-possible" period of Soviet history after the First World War. Considering the small size of the Hebrew-speaking populace and the dim official view of Zionism, it is no surprise that the company found the going rough and decided to emigrate in 1926. But after touring Eastern Europe, Germany and the United States in the mid-'20s, Habimah resettled in Palestine in 1929, built a permanent headquarters in Tel Aviv and since 1958 has been the "National Theatre of Israel." Anything is, after all, possible.
Saturday night, Habimah brought its production of "A Simple Tale" to the Baltimore School for the Arts, opening the three-week-long Baltimore International Theatre Festival. Although the torch has clearly been passed to a younger generation, Habimah still shows its original influences -- the intense flamboyance of the Yiddish Theatre and the realistic emotional texture of the Moscow Art Theatre (whose director, Constantin Stanislavksy, was Habimah's artistic patron in the early Moscow years).
In addition, the play depicts the lost world of the shtetl , or Jewish ghetto (somewhere in the Austro-Hungarian empire, we are informed, around the turn of the century). And unlike many Habimah productions, which are adapted or translated from English, Yiddish or French, this one is based on a novel written in Hebrew, by a man who probably did as much as anyone to advance the idea of creating new literature in the language of the Bible.
Speaking of language, non-Hebrew-speakers should be advised that the performance is untranslated but preceded by a brief plot summary. "A Simple Tale," a narrator tells us, is about a storekeeper's son who falls in love with an orphan girl and then agrees to a loveless (but financially advantageous) marriage arranged by his parents. After the wedding, he goes mad and is committed to an asylum. But with the passage of time and the birth of a son, he becomes resigned to his life and returns to his duties as father and husband.
Beyond that bare outline, you're on your own. The play was presumably chosen for export because the storytelling approaches the flavor of pantomime at times, and the action is always richly and vividly illustrated. (When Hirshel and Ninna are married, for example, a net descends on them and wraps them in a stranglehold. When Hirshel goes mad, all the neatly arranged props and furniture go haywire, and the stage is covered with feathers.) But amid the visual high jinks, a great deal of dialogue is spoken, and a verbally-minded theatergoer is bound to feel frustrated. Even those casually acquainted with Hebrew, I am told, could find Agnon's poetic language (as adapted by Shlomo Nitzan and Itzhak Goren) difficult to follow.
The power, technical skill and total coordination of the players come across -- language barrier or no language barrier. With a 16-member cast and an elaborate array of props and scenery, "A Simple Tale" must have been a costly piece of international transport. So for anyone interested in modern Hebrew theater and literature, this is a rare opportunity. Nothing like it is likely to come our way again anytime soon