BWW Reviews: Nalaga'at Theater's NOT BY BREAD ALONE Is a Rare Glimpse of a Unique Ensemble
As you walk into the Nalaga'at Theater's production of Not By Bread Alone, those with sight can see performers kneading bread on a nice wood-paneled set (designed by Eithan Ronel). For those with hearing, there's also a charming accordion tune (composed by Amnon Baaham). A solitary figure, Itzik Hanina, types in braille to one side of the stage, while on the other side you see baking ovens and remember that there will be free bread after the show.
Then suddenly, for a brief moment, the Terrace Theater is plunged into darkness and silence. This is the world of Usher Syndrome, the world where most of the cast lives, a genetic disorder that robs you of much of your hearing and your sight by the time you reach adolescence. Communication, of necessity, is by touch, using sign language; but as becomes clear in the course of this 70-minute show they all aspire to do much more.
The framing device for Not by Bread Alone is the baking of bread, an activity that is labor-intensive at first but which also allows plenty of time for family and friends to hang out and swap stories while the dough rises, with more tales to tell when it goes in to bake. There is no substitute for home-made bread, and for the comradery that comes with it.
Given the informality of the setting, it seems natural that the bulk of Not by Bread Alone is about the performers introducing themselves, talking about their lives and dreams, and acting out a few of their dream-scenarios along the way. Shakespeare it ain't, and not everyone in the cast has talents that translate to the stage as effectively as others. But it is a reminder that we cheat ourselves when we don't break bread with people just because they live with challenges; they are well worth getting to know, and they have hidden talents that are just waiting to be discovered.
Because some in the cast retain some sight, hearing, and speech, the scenes that play out before you vary in their physicality and dexterity; Mark Yaroski, who watched the silent comedies of Charlie Chaplin as a child, does a fine impression of the famous Tramp careening about the stage to hilarious effect (he may not be able to watch movies these days, but hey-why watch Chaplin when you can be Chaplin?). Yaroski teams up with tall, stocky Igor Osherov-himself an aficionado of stilt-walking-and the two create a sequence of rapid-fire slapstick routines. Meanwhile, the appealing Bat-Sheva Rabansari gets to live out her dream of having her hair done in a salon where (natch) it's impossible to get an appointment until the next millennium. The climax of the show comes when Igor's brother, Yuri Osherov, decides he wants to get married. When he finds his bride, the bold Evgenia Shtesky, we finally get to see how a romance within the deaf-blind community blossoms.
The name Nalaga'at can be translated as "Do Touch," and although the conventions of theatre demand that you stay in your seats for the duration of the show, the cast invites you to join them for more direct communication afterwards-and a dinner-roll or two, fresh from the ovens on-stage. Another convention that can be more jarring for American audiences is the team of guides and translators who accompany the cast on-stage, helping them to navigate the Terrace Theater for much of the show. Perhaps this is a function of the actors being on the road, performing in a space that they haven't had the time to explore, but it would be nice to see future productions where the company can work with greater independence.
Director Adina Tal recalls that when Nalaga'at Theater opened its first production some ten years ago, the fact that the performers were deaf and blind gave audiences the notion that watching the show was going to be an act of charity. You had the usual questions about whether the ticket was tax-deductible, folks patting themselves on the back for doing a 'good deed,' etc. But as soon as the lights when up, they were astounded; this wasn't quaint, amateurish stuff for family and friends, it aspired to be a full-fledged professional production. The conversation on people living with disabilities in Israel (the company is based in Tel Aviv) may not be nearly as advanced as it is here, but it would appear that Tal is helping to start a new conversation about the need to mainstream people who, like the members of her company, wish nothing more or less than a normal life.
Having established their talent and their ability to work together as a team, there are other directions the company might consider; they have a resident poet, Itzik Hanina, who serves as the MC for much of the show, and it is clear that everyone at Nalaga'at aspires to live with as little outside assistance as possible. Given their love of the theater, there is no reason why they shouldn't consider adding a traditional script or even a classic play to their repertoire, in addition to developing shows that reduce the need for "translators" (even on tour) to an absolute minimum. As the late Augusto Boal might put it, theatre can be a rehearsal for the real world, for the lives we want to live; I hope to see more from Nagala'at in the future, and hope they will continue to challenge themselves in the years to come.
Performances for the World Stages: International Theater Festival take place March 10-30 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. For tickets and more information, visit: http://www.kennedy-center.org/programs/festivals/13-14/world/.