Puppet state

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Recipe for dystopia: Salt of the Earth, using puppets and live-action film projected on a full-screen, was written and directed by Israeli actor-director Zvi Sahar. Photo by Yair Meyuhas
Recipe for dystopia: Salt of the Earth, using puppets and live-action film projected on a full-screen, was written and directed by Israeli actor-director Zvi Sahar.
Photo by Yair Meyuhas

Review

A thousand pounds of salt, cardboard cut-outs, some plastic army men and toy trucks. These disparate objects become the artistic raw material to recreate the dystopian society Israeli satirist and critic Amos Kenan invented in his 1984 novella The Road to Ein Harod.


In it, we follow a nameless city dweller as he unwittingly gets wrapped up in a military coup by a strong-armed fictionalized Israeli army. He sets off on a risky journey —through desert, sea and small towns — that spans history and historic battlegrounds of the past toward what he believes is the last holdout for a free society: Kibbutz Ein Harod in the Jezreel Valley. The production came to the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center for two performances last week.

Salt of the Earth, an 80-minute theatrical experience using puppets and live-action film projected on a full-screen, was written and directed by Israeli actor and director Zvi Sahar, who drew on the collaborative skills of the group PuppetCinema and the Jerusalem-based HaZira Performance Art Arena.

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It is a puppet show for the 21st century. The material, which delves into the implacable politics of Israel’s military Zionist industrial complex, is highly sophisticated and adult in nature.

Puppet theater, though typically thought of as children’s entertainment, long has aimed for adult sensibilities and materials. With its roots in 16th-century commedia dell’arte, even a classic like Punch and Judy, with all of its funny slapstick jokes carries an undertone of violence and domestic abuse — not exactly child’s play. Modern-day puppeteers for adults include Paul Zaloom and Basil Twist, and there’s the Broadway hit Avenue Q.  That list even includes the Muppets, who so astutely mined multiple levels —  reaching kids with simple, silly fun, while also marinating the sketches and musical numbers with jokes that played to the adults watching.


Salt, though, is entirely adult in every way; the program states unequivocally: “This production … is not suitable for young children.”

Sahar narrates the tale that is boldly told in film noir style. His dry, often uninflected tone becomes mesmerizing as he describes the unbelievable events unfolding. There is, of course, an unexplained break-in — rebels perhaps? — a harrowing escape, proceeded by outlandish plans to hole up in an attic crawl space, an encounter or two with a beautiful but manipulative woman and collusion with an enemy compatriot — an Arab named variously Mahmoud and Rafi. The enemy-friend relationship further complicates the journey.

The meandering tale is punctuated by historic snippets about the land of Israel, its conquered and its conquerors over more than two millennia — a point Kenan, the original author, wanted to address in his own provocative text on the creation of a liberal utopian post-Zionist nation.

On stage, Sahar and four performers sweep, shape and sculpt that mound of salt into the mountains, deserts, caves, roadways and towns of Israel’s landscape using their hands, brooms and those various props. A rough-hewn puppet, sewn from distressed camouflage and burlap, enacts Sahar’s narration as the protagonist. Trailing him, cinematographer Aya Zaiger carries a camera, setting up and filming intimate shots of the puppet in his encounters and the vast and sculptural landscape as it appears out of those piles of salt. Another performer trails her with high-intensity lights, carving out shadows in the mostly nighttime journey.

This stylized cinematography and puppetry takes up the majority of the stage space in Smith Center’s black box Kogod Theater. The technique and the company, developed by Sahar, is called PuppetCinema. This semester he is in residence and teaching in the theater program at University of Maryland College Park as well as developing a new work, Suddenly a Knock on the Door, based on the work of Israeli short story author Etgar Keret.

In Salt of the Earth, so much of the narrative, the props and the monologue, mostly drawn directly from Kenan’s writing, carry deep resonances in a land so disputed and decimated too many times over the centuries. Salt becomes a metaphor for the land’s destruction. In Hebrew, “the land” or ha-aretz can mean simply the earth or the land, but more significantly it also refers specifically to “the land of Israel.”

Replicating the landscape and the nation of Israel through the bitterness of salt suggests a toppling of Zionist dreams or myths. It’s long been promoted that when waves of Jews moved to Israel in the early and mid-20th century, primarily through the growing collectivist kibbutz movement, they “made the dessert bloom.” In Sahar’s near-apocalyptic dystopia, the desert — the land, ha-aretz — becomes again barren, for salt is what armies used to poison conquered fields and turn them fallow in earlier centuries.

Ein Harod, too, represents a Zionist idea. The earliest large-scale kibbutz, it was founded in 1935 by Zionist pioneers from Russia. The utopian ideals of the kibbutz movement promoting a socially just and economically independent community were bold and forward-thinking at the time. But by 1984, when Kenan wrote his deeply critical book, and two years ago, when Sahar premiered Salt of the Earth, those values became tarnished, usurped by the ever-growing consumerist bent of Israeli society and its shifting political landscape that no longer holds fast utopian ideals of living on and with the land.

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