Actor-producer Linda Purl and the City of Calabasas can almost — but not quite — make up for the disappointment felt when UCLA canned its excellent International Theatre Festival a couple of months ago. David Sefton, that festival's director, and also curator for UCLA Live, through which it was presented, subsequently resigned from the university.
Like Sefton, Purl has been globe-trotting, seeking the kinds of works that she believes will speak to Californians in a wealthy West San Fernando Valley enclave. And her efforts feel just a little bit like Europe, where small cities (such as Wroclaw, Poland, for instance) host international performance festivals with local support.
Calabasas also houses one of the most beautiful theaters in the region, the 400-seat Prometheus Theatre at the Viewpoint School (a private institution), which also has a Greek amphitheater and a black-box space.
This third year's entries in what's called the California International Theatre Festival include the U.S. premiere of Stones, by the Orto-Da Theatre Group from Israel; the American premiere of Tempting Providence, by Robert Chafe, Theatre Newfoundland Labrador from Canada; Around the World in 80 Minutes, an apprentice performance by youth housed for a month at Cal State, Channel Islands; Essence of China: Beijing Opera De-Mystified, a demonstration by Ghaffar Pourazar; Catch the Light, a cabaret act performed by Michele Lee; the American premiere of The Ring Road, by Raymond Zhou from China; Samuel Beckett's The End, performed by the Gare St Lazare Players from Ireland, directed by Judy Hegarty Lovett and performed by Conor Lovett; and Harry Burton's documentary film Working With Pinter.
I saw the production of Stones, which played last weekend only at the Viewpoint School's sparkling and swanky Prometheus Theatre. And though this performance by Tel Aviv's Orta Da Theatre Group has been acclaimed at festivals across Western and Eastern Europe, as well as in Canada and Brazil, the Calabasas production marked its U.S. premiere.
It's a one-hour play without dialogue, though there's sound and fury, signifying plenty.
The project, created and directed by Yinon Tzafir and designed by Miki Ben Knaan, is inspired by a Nathan Rapoport sculpture of muddy faces and coats and boots melded into granite. The stones used in the sculpture were commissioned by Adolf Hitler for a monument glorifying his imagined Nazi victory over Europe. Rapoport went to great lengths to find those stones and use them instead to create a monument honoring the residents of the Warsaw Ghetto.
What we see at play's start is a kind of replica of the statue, whose figures slowly come to life through co-director Daniel Zafrani's automatonic choreography — as though the figures are puppets who meld into puppeteers.
With mud-stained faces and clothes, combined with glaring eyes and teeth, the figures are both cadaverlike and comical. And the piece is a parade of massive symbols from the Holocaust, a blend of traditional gravitas and postmodern whimsy.
We hear train whistles and the screeching of metallic brakes. Suddenly the statues are facing horizontal rows of barbed wire. After one of them discovers, with great delight, that the electric current doesn't seem to be flowing through the wire as it had just been, he plucks it, and we hear a single tone of a harp. And then another figure does the same, joined by another, until they're playing a kind of harp symphony — with the velvet sound and the barbed-wire visual creating a discomfiting juxtaposition.
One of the figures spouts yellow tape from his mouth. The actors configure that tape into a Star of David, which melts into a swastika, which melts into a kite, on which a cherubic baby flies.
In one of the most moving images, the living statues try to keep the crying baby silent, for fear of being discovered. And so they attempt to divert it with a clown entertainment. We hear lugubrious strains of a violin concerto as the baby squeals with delight at the yellow-rubber noses and animated, almost deranged, idiotic expressions worn by the adults.
The piece time-trips into the '80s, with pop TV and techno-disco. The actors wear sheep masks, the eyes lit with iridescent paint. Eventually, after their bleating wears down, they face front to watch TV — one flipping channels with a remote control.
The sheep mime their delight, as they're accompanied by the TV's canned laughter. They look pensively absorbed during some melodrama, apprehensive during a horror flick. The sounds of a speech by Hitler come over the TV, and their body language reveals the trepidations of history.
At a point late in the performance, they've concocted a large stick puppet that, with a streak of hair and a mustache, obviously represents Hitler.
Yet the puppet speaks in an Indian accent and is capable of physical contortions in which his ankles can wrap backward to his ears. He speaks of enchantment and of enlightenment, and beckons to them, "Follow me."
Iridescent Stars of David that float in the night sky and become mingled with the crescent of Palestine speak with gaping and obvious symbolism, and yet the Indian Hitler is an enigma. This is beyond the ironies and tragedies that form so much of the performance. I found it mystifying in a performance that's otherwise anything but.
There are press materials that describe the piece as a testament to the pain and endurance and survival, and other such tropes.
I responded to it more as a historical kaleidoscope. Its beauty resides in the shifting shapes and recurring images, punctuated with symbols anyone with the most remedial knowledge of history can read.
It's a fever dream on that train to the camps. Those sounds of the train keep echoing, even after we've visited the 1980s.
It invites you in through politics, and then covers you in a blanket of metaphysics, toying with various shapes of time and purpose, of life and death, of hope and despondency, through a magic clown act by people made of stone. Those people are performed by Yaniv Moyal, Avi Gibson Bar-el, Moti Sabag, Hila Spector, Yzekeal Cohen and Yinon Tzafrir.
If you have fixed ideas for or against Israel and its current policies, Orta da Theatre Group has a good shot at reframing the Israel-Palestine debate in ways that invite more rumination than reaction. This was the very impulse for creating the festival. Purl says she was moved to start it after 9/11, when it became evident that "we have enemies." Reared overseas (in Japan) and trained in the theater (at LAMDA), she wanted to do something meaningful to promote international understanding, using the arena she knows best — the theater. The city of Calabasas jumped right in from the start of the extended fundraising campaign. "Calabasas is very pleased [with the festival]," Purl says. "They're in it for the long run."
Yet there's a hint of apprehension in her words.
"We've been doing okay. ... We would absolutely hope that we sell more tickets as we go. We're a relatively new event trying to woo patrons with busy schedules. But these are all U.S. premieres. They're here and they go home. If you don't see it here, you won't see it — at least in this 12-month cycle."
CALIFORNIA INTERNATIONAL THEATRE FESTIVAL: At various locations in Calabasas. Visit citfestival.org; through July 25.