Guy Ben Aharon and theater of belonging

by Alicia Anstead

Born in Israel, Guy Ben Aharon is the producing artistic director and founder of Israeli Stage, which is currently touring Apples from the Desert by award-winning Israeli playwright Savyon Liebrecht. Directed by Ben Aharon, Apples is a romantic comedy about an Orthodox Sephardic Jewish couple whose only daughter Rivka runs away from home to live on a kibbutz after she finds out her father’s plan to marry her off in an arranged marriage. The play is being staged March 23 at Boston University, March 24 at Harvard Hillel and March 28 at Northeastern University. (See details below.) Ben Aharon is also producing/directing a new musical called Cupcake and is part of the Group Sales team at ArtsEmerson. We caught up with him to talk about Apples, the playwright Savyon Liebricht and the role of theater in his life.

What drew you to this play?

After I first met Savyon and saw her work in Tel-Aviv, I knew I wanted to introduce our audience to it. She is a very well-known figure in Israeli theatre, and her plays are wildly successful. It was important for me that Israeli Stage produce works by female playwrights, and I thought that this particular piece is not only written by a woman, but from a feminine perspective. I also find it very funny and hauntingly chilling at the same time.

You say as an immigrant that theater helped open American culture to you. How did that happen?

I moved to the United States at the age of 9 without speaking much English at all, and a year later, in fifth grade, a few of my American friends invited me to audition with them for the after school production of Mary Poppins. Doing theater taught me to express myself in English, and made me feel like I was a part of something; theater gave me a sense of belonging.

Theater that sets out to change points of view can sometimes be didactic. How does Apples from the Desert over come this?

I don't think Apples from the Desert sets out to teach people a moral as much as it sets out to tell a story about a community which most people know almost nothing about. It brings us into a world we don't often get to experience first-hand, and introduces universal themes of women's self-fulfillment through the lens of the Abarbanel family that exists within the realm of a tight-knit religious Sephardi neighborhood.

What character in Savyon Liebrecht's play most interests you and why?

I think they're all pretty fascinating! But if I had to choose one, I would choose Rivka. Rivka's journey is difficult, to say the least. Albeit the rules and regulations her parents and community put in place, she manages to come into her own as a believer, and as an independent young woman. Savyon captures the spirit of an intelligent, frustrated teenager who decides to make her own path in life and not conform to society's expectations, and she does so with such elegance. Savyon could have written a character who fully rejects the ways of her parents, but instead she paints a far more complex picture in which Rivka uses her past as building blocks for an authentic identity. Rivka never fully abandons the traditions of her parents' home, but rather uses her former life as an Orthodox woman to inform how she conducts herself within a secular milieu.

Why this play now? Do you feel the topic of Israel needs more discussion, or that religious vs. secular tension is high, or that you simply find it to be a good story -- and that's a timeless reason for putting on a play?

At a time when women’s rights are being challenged all over the world, it is important that we acknowledge the freedoms women deserve across all borders and communities. Apples from the Desert shines a light on those very issues within the Orthodox community in Jerusalem in a way that is universal and informative for people from all walks of life.

APPLES FROM THE DESERT TOUR PERFORMANCE CALENDAR

8:30 p.m. Friday, March 23, Boston University

Florence and Chafetz Hillel House, 213 Bay State Road

CONTACT: KateLynn Plotnick bubirthright@gmail.com

Saturday, March 24, [time TBD], Harvard University

Hosted by Harvard Hillel.

CONTACT: Anna Resnick resnick.anna@gmail.com

7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 28, Northeastern University

135 Shillman Hall; 115 Forsyth St.

Hosted by Northeastern Hillel and Jewish Studies Department.

CONTACT: Jason Pressberg birthrightnu@gmail.com

[Caption: Guy Ben Aharon PHOTO: Joel Benjamin]