In Jerusalem, the intermediate days of Passover are a wonderland of entertainment activity, as the city's cultural institutions bring out their best. Visitors and residents alike are warmly invited to partake in the 2011 Stage One Amateur English Theater Festival. Presented by Beit Avi Chai, in cooperation with Merkaz Hamagshimim Hadassah, the festival runs for three days during Passover, featuring plays, standup comedy, improv and a variety of musical performances - more than 15 shows in all.
Back for a second year, Stage One reaches out to a wide range of English-speakers: Israelis, Anglo olim (immigrants), students, long-term expats and tourists. The performances explore issues of Jewish identity, religious practice, the Land of Israel and persecution, and the stories encompass Jewish history from ancient Judea to the Internet age. Although Judaism is at the heart of these plays, the settings vary and include Eastern Europe during World War II and modern America, in addition to Israel.
As Michal Nakar, the director of Beit Avi Chai, explained the Stage One concept
GoJerusalem.com upon its launch a year ago, "We initiated this project because we think it will
enrich Israeli culture to have this [English-language performing arts] voice
mixed into it.... These are people who, while they didn't grow up here, live here
now and are an inseparable part of culture and life here."
Musician Ben Draiman (pictured, in blue forest), who is performing at Stage One for the second year in a row later this month, agrees. "There is something for everyone," he tells GoJerusalem.com. "It is really the best of the best of the English-speaking production companies." The festival reaches "a wide demographic," Draiman notes, providing his work with a more diverse audience than he usually reaches. Draiman recalls that the crowd at his 2010 Stage One show was comprised of "people in their early 20s all the way to people in their early 70s."
Draiman, who made aliyah over 16 years ago, works in psychiatric research and sees music as an especially powerful medium. "Music is a form of therapy," he says. "People from all over the world have commented that my music has helped them."
Draiman sings and plays piano, and he is gearing up to present a song cycle called From Within at Stage One. It is a set of deeply personal compositions that
are overwhelmingly original. "They grapple with heartbreak and existential
issues," he explains. "It's soulful music, extremely emotional." Draiman's set sees him accompanied by guitarists, a violin player and two female
backing vocalists. He presents From Within only a few times a year, because the performance "is an intense
experience [for me], an intense journey," but one which ultimately reveals "the light at the
end of the tunnel," he says.
For more light-hearted fare, the troupe Hahafuch presents improv and comedy sketch performances, the Jerusalem Barbershop Ensemble sings in harmony, and Jeremy Saltan offers politically-tinged standup comedy.
In the dramatic category, powerful women rulers take the stage in The Maccabee Queen, a fictionalized account about the allies Cleopatra III and Shlomtzion Hamalka. The secrets of religious ritual, viewed through eight women's eyes, are shared in Mikveh; the Stage One festival marks the first time that this play, an international success, is directed by its acclaimed playwright Hadar Galron. Explorations of Shabbat, based on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's well-known book, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, are presented in Sabbath Variations: The Splendor of Space.
The loony world of Internet dating is rife with comedy in Jewtopia. The Pianist, presented by the Encore! Educational Theater Company, chronicles life in the Warsaw Ghetto for a Polish-Jewish musician; it is based on the memoirs of both the pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman, and the diary of German police officer who saved him. A story by S.Y. Agnon, one of the first Israeli novelists, provides the springboard for The Fable of the Goat.
Stage One's remarkable range of performances takes place at Beit Avi Chai from April 20 to 22. Discounted ticket packages for multiple performances are available.