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  •   Gesher Bridges Cultures

    By Lee Hockstader
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Sunday, April 26, 1998; Page A28

    KIBBUTZ YAGAR, Israel – The play had been sold out for weeks, and on the night of the performance extra rows were installed in the back of the 1,250-seat auditorium. The audience settled in and got its first look at an unusual set: a revolving stage, shaped like a bagel, nestled in a wheat field. There was a buzz of excitement before the first actor uttered a line; everyone sensed this would be a night of special theater.

    As Israel's most acclaimed troupe, the Gesher theater company has been playing to packed houses – not only at home but on its increasingly frequent tours of Europe and the United States.

    Gesher, a mostly Russian-speaking company, performs more than 80 percent of its productions in Hebrew, a language few of the actors could speak just a few years ago – and which the artistic director, Evgeny Arye, still can barely manage.

    Gesher is the Hebrew word for bridge. Nearly from the start, the company realized it would have to span the cultural chasm separating Russian and Israeli theater in order not to be trapped in an exclusively Russian milieu. That meant performing in Hebrew.

    "I remember all the other theaters in Israel after World War II of immigrants from Hungary, Romania, you name it, and after one or two or three years they just disappeared," said Ori Levy, 66, Gesher's director general. "Gesher understood that if they didn't want to stay in a [Russian] ghetto, they had to play in Hebrew."

    On this night, Gesher was performing "The Village," by Joshua Sobol, a play set during and immediately after World War II in what was then British-administered Palestine. The play, which received rave reviews a year ago when Gesher performed it in London, was charming, funny and beautifully acted.

    Gesher, which performed at the Kennedy Center last month, plans to return to the United States this summer to perform "The Village" at Lincoln Center in New York.

    Arye – immodest, iconoclastic and engaging – is hailed as a wizard by Israeli critics. Arye is determined that Gesher should continue performing at least a portion of its repertoire in Russian, but he knows its future is in Hebrew.

    "It has to be the Chekhov of Gesher theater, the Babel of Gesher theater," he said. "I hope this combination will mean something."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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