Sacred and profane collide in stylized fashion

Shiva (“Mourning”)
By Shmuel Hasfari
Directed by Kfir Azoulai
Bet Lessin, 4/1/19

The backdrop on Polina Adamov’s effective and minimalist set of Shiva is a two-story bank of shutters. Shutters open and close, reveal and conceal – especially conceal – something we’re very good at here, where very little is what it seems, where conflict is a way of life, where life can and does tear us to bits, where even the all too familiar rituals and observances of mourning are dislocated and upended. Kfir Azulai’s stylized production of Shiva has the dignity and humanity that the play’s mourning does not. He unfolds to us the portraits of, and events in, the life and death of terminally henpecked teacher Tuvia Hagorni (Gadi Yagil) and his dysfunctional family. There’s his hag of a wife, Dvora (Anat Waxman); his wimpy eldest son Nahum (Nadav Nates), an air force staff officer; his daughter Rika (Naomi Levov), who looks to be stepping in her mother’s footsteps; and his youngest Shlomi (Daniel Gad), an IDF rookie who idolizes his dad.

Then there’s Tovale (Yael Sztulman), Nahum’s wife, who’s about to have, and then has a baby. There’s her doting father, Zvi Perel (Ofir Weil); a religiously observant Safed family that Dvora wants nothing to do with, which she despises and rails against viciously; and finally there’s Rika’s husband, Nissim (Yaniv Biton), the canny owner of a boutique, and the only human being who the others come to trust to get things done.

And all this happens against the backdrop of Anwar Sadat’s historic trip to Israel in 1977, when hopes of peace dizzied all and when people were glued to their TV sets. In the midst of all this excitement, Tuvia’s death passes unremarkably except to his family. They can’t even get a proper minyan for the ritual’s required prayers. Shlomi, who refuses to accept that his father is dead, also refuses to recite the required Kaddish mourner’s prayer. Sacred and profane collide, as they do in the other plays of the trilogy, Kiddush and Hametz that are equally a metaphor for our lives here, lives that we’ve somehow betrayed, and Shiva shows us that.

Tuvia – he’s mainly a ghost – is a gentle, nonjudgmental presence. Perel’s Zvi is a naïf, a simple chap who can’t understand why Dvora hates him so. And Sztulman’s Tovale has some of his gentle bafflement as well as her own grit. Perel also does an exquisite cameo as a venal hevra kadisha (burial society) official. Rika (Levov) and Nahum (Nates) both flounder beautifully as they try to appear as what they are not – independent souls. We see Shlomi’s soul gradually disintegrating under the (sadistic) toughening regime his sergeant puts him through, and which actor Gad properly conceals until he can’t any more.

Yaniv Biton’s humane, brave, often funny, always touching Nissim is lovely. And now we come to Waxman. It is time this fine and sensitive actress stopped playing witches with a potty mouth, a role she can do in her sleep. It is to her credit that the abominable Dvora comes across as real, a woman you would like to stay away from, which is not true of the play. We may celebrate Shiva, its tragic ending notwithstanding.

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