Bringing Israeli plays to the Boston stage
Emerson College undergraduate Guy Ben-Aharon went to see his faculty adviser back in 2010 because he didn't feel busy enough.
"I said, look, I want a challenge. I want to work on something bigger than just student stuff," he recalls. At the time, he was pursuing a theater studies degree with concentrations in directing and arts management.
His adviser, the director and Emerson professor Melia Bensussen, suggested that the Israeli-born Ben-Aharon produce a reading of an Israeli play in translation. She cautioned, however, that he should be realistic about the modest crowd he was likely to attract.
"Which then set me on a mission," Ben-Aharon says.
The ensuing reading of A.B. Yehoshua's "Possessions," featuring Will LeBow at the Goethe-Institut Boston in November 2010, wound up drawing a capacity crowd of about 100 people, he says. "When I saw the reaction of the audience and I saw that there was a hunger for this, I thought, well, let's roll with it, let's make it a series," Ben-Aharon says, admitting that that had been his hope all along. The second reading came the following April, and Israeli Stage was off and running.
The latest result of the now 22-year-old's ambition will be on display Sunday at the Goethe-Institut in a staged reading of Gilad Evron's play "Ulysses on Bottles." Directed by Ben-Aharon, its cast includes a quartet of Elliot Norton Award winners: Jeremiah Kissel, Johnny Lee Davenport, Will Lyman, and Karen MacDonald.
The play tells the story of an Israeli Arab literature teacher nicknamed Ulysses (Davenport), who is arrested for trying to sail a raft full of books to Gaza, and Saul (Kissel), an Israeli Jew and successful lawyer who ends up defending him pro bono. Their story explores the ways Israelis react to the Palestinian situation: the collisions of the personal and the political, morality and ambition.
That's right on target for what Israeli Stage is trying to accomplish, says Ben-Aharon, who has dual Israeli-US citizenship and graduated from Emerson this year.
"I knew that those who are not Jews, they don't have a personal connection to Israel . . . that their only connection is political," he says. "And I thought, we have to change that, we have to have a personal impact on people. And I thought that through drama people could relate to universal themes presented through an Israeli lens, through Israeli stories. And that's what happened."
Some of the plays are contemporary; all are by living Israeli playwrights and are performed in English. Many don't deal directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict, but "of course the stories will be political, because it's Israel," Ben-Aharon says with a laugh. "The drama that is written and presented in Israel has to be political, because there is no other choice, really, when you're living in that kind of a zone."
"Ulysses" is the ninth reading for the company, which is funded by the Israel Campus Roundtable and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies.
Bensussen says the success of the endeavor is not a surprise, coming from Ben-Aharon. When he told her two years ago that he wanted a challenge, she talked to him about how to find material and performance spaces, "and that is the last bit of credit I can take for Guy's achievement," Bensussen says. "Guy just went out and did it."
Ben-Aharon was 9 when his family moved from Hertzelia, outside Tel Aviv, to Brookline after his father landed a job here in the telecom industry. His parents moved back to Tel Aviv in 2008.
"As an Israeli himself, there is a political sophistication that is not always present in young Americans, especially about the Middle East," Bensussen says. "His family is there; he has a real sense of the political moment. But I think what Guy is arguing for is to not think about the politics but to get to know the situation through the art. . . . He's providing a window into another perspective at a very loaded time."
And now he's providing a window into a second culture, too. Ben-Aharon's initial connection to the Goethe-Institut was simply renting the venue, but officials there have since hired him to create German Stage, bringing contemporary German theater to the Boston area and beyond. "It is usually very difficult to get an American theater company interested in German theater," says Detlef Gericke-Schönhagen, director of the Goethe-Institut.
This fall, readings of Gericke-Schönhagen's "Voltaire & Frederick: A Life in Letters," with John Kuntz and Thomas Derrah in the title roles, were seen here as well on a Canadian tour to Toronto, Waterloo, and Ottawa. On Monday, a reading is to be performed at the Goethe-Zentrum Atlanta.
Gericke-Schönhagen says Ben-Aharon won him over with a 2011 staged reading of Savyon Liebrecht's "The Banality of Love," about the relationship between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger. "I was so impressed with how he succeeded in bringing a . . . relationship that is part of [German] cultural history to life onstage," Gericke-Schönhagen says. "This happens not so often, being  and having a sense for the stage, for stage setting, to deal with actors and to deal with manuscripts."
To Ben-Aharon, there is no irony in running both Israeli Stage and German Stage: "It's been pointed out to me several times, but I say that in our current political world, Germany is one of Israel's strongest allies."
His hope for Israeli Stage, he says, is to turn it from readings to full productions.
"I don't have $30,000 yet," he says. "But we'll get there, as more people pay attention."
Ben-Aharon, a Bay Village resident, says proudly that he is supporting himself by directing and producing. He formed a board for Israeli Stage this year, he says, and it is in the process of becoming an independent nonprofit organization.
"We used to joke in the department, when Guy was a student, that we'd all be working for Guy one day," Bensussen says.
In fact, she says, several Emerson faculty members and current or recent students have appeared in Israeli Stage readings, and she directed the Lerner play.
"He just makes work in the purest sense of creating a home for artists and creating opportunities for artists. He's got a great energy," Bensussen says. "He's willing to go out there and ask for what he needs and push people. . . . He's got so much charm and passion for what he's doing, that in the end nobody wants to say no."