Yoram Koniuk’s “1948” at Theater J – Wow (15 cents)

As I said a few days ago, the fuss that had erupted over Theater J’s staged reading production of Motti Lerner’s “The Admission” was totally unnecessary.  The play raised the question of what really happened in the Arab village of Tantur (or, in real life, Tantura) during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, recognizing that a significant number of Arabs (and a smaller number of Jews) were killed (but was it 20, 70, or 200?), but reaching no conclusion as to whether or not the deaths were necessary (if very unfortunate) consequences of war, or whether in fact there was an uncalled for “massacre” of Arab civilians.  This reflects the current controversy over what might have happened at Tantura during that conflict without reaching conclusions.  Whom do you believe?  The former Israeli commander at the site, or the Arab witness?  And how accurate are their separate memories?  And how truthful are they trying to believe.

As a part of the annual Middle East festival at the theater, and building on the issues raised in “The Admission”, Theater J presented a one night staged reading of “1948”, one of the most fascinating pieces of theater I have seen in some time.  Let me try to explain the piece:  Well known Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk (well known in Israel), born in Palestine in 1930 and member of the elite Palmach troops in the 1948 Independence War, started out with hopes and ideals, most of which never came to reality.  As time went on, and Israel was engaged in war after war with its neighbors without a clue as to how to become welcome in its neighborhood, he became very disillusioned with his homeland. Perhaps “disillusioned” is too mild of a word.  He became extremely (overly, I believe) critical of what Israel had become.  And he didn’t hide his position either from his writing or his public statements.

This disappointment was manifest in Koniuk’s memoir “1948”, written 60 years after the War of Independence (the setting of Lerner’s play was 1988, 40 years after), where he tried to recollect those long lost hopes, that vanished idealism. But “1948” was a memoir, not a play.  It took Noya Lancet, an Israeli director and dramaturg about whom I know virtually little, to adapt the Koniuk’s memoir into a theatrical presentation, which she did for the Haifa Theatre in Israel.  And what a masterful job it is.

How close to Koniuk’s memoir the 90 minute, one act play is, I don’t know.  There are eight actors, all portraying  members of the same brigade in the Palmach, one of the elite fighting forces in 1948, and their family members and friends.  The holocaust feels its presence, as does the pioneering spirit of the native Palestinian Jews a bit taken aback by the sudden appearance of sick and weak survivors from Europe.  Each of the characters play multiple characters.  There is no plot or story line.  It is an exercise in memory – the collective and sometimes conflicting memories of the characters. Memory of battles and confusion and loneliness and pain and injury (inflicted on themselves and on others) and death.  Wondering how they got into this war, and what is this war about anyway, and how a victory seemed not possible, but how a victory was going to change the world.  And memories that they may not really remember, memories that were less than certain.  Memories of their friends who died.  Memories of their keeping silent.  Memories of their hopes.  Memories of their disappointment.  Around and around it goes.  A dream, perhaps.  Perhaps not.

It’s a story about a specific time and a specific war, to be sure.  But it feels so universal.  Do all wars seem this way to the young (very young – teenagers for the most part) who wind up fighting in them, who believe in their cause, and who look back to see what the victory really led to decades later.

Brilliantly directed by Derek Goldman and acted by a wonderful ensemble, on book, but moving around the stage after just two afternoons of rehearsal.

Whether “1948” will ever be performed again, I don’t know.  But those of you who were not their last night really missed something.

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