|CULTURE & SOCIETY
Art speaks when language cannot
Based on a novel by Shalom Aleichem in 1880, Stempenyu recreated the passion of music, art and love
Priyam Bagga and Naasha Anklesaria
It requires a group of highly talented artists to put up a play like Stempenyu. Forbidden love and torrid affairs are two of Israeli theatre’s favourite subjects and Stempenyu doesn’t disappoint in either aspect.
Based on a novel written by Shalom Aleichem in 1880, Stempenyu was performed for the first time outside Israel in the capital as part of the five-day Delhi International Arts Festival. A production of the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv, the play managed to break the barrier of language and enchant the audience at the Siri Fort auditorium on the 4 November. Directed by Edna Mazya and Yechezkel Lazarov (who also stars as the lead Stempenyu), it was performed in Hebrew with subtitles in English.
A complicated love story between Stempenyu and Rochale, both married but unhappy, Stempenyu is a gifted violinist who leads a band of klezmers—professional musicians who usually perform at weddings. At one such wedding performance, he meets the beautiful Rochale (Rona-Lee Shimon) who loves music almost as much as he does. “Art’s explanation does not always come through words, but through movements and it is through his movements that one can understand how much Stempenyu is in love with his art,” said Lazarov about the protagonist.
As a foil to the passionate but wavering Stempenyu is Rochale, a spirited princess with dreams and ambitions that her husband Menashe Mendl (Eran Mor) just does not understand. Trying very hard to make her marriage work despite the fact that her husband obviously loves his books more than he loves her, Rochale cannot help but be enchanted by the music that Stempenyu makes. Dancing to his tune, but refusing to give in to her feelings, Rochale spends a large part of the play in denial but ultimately follows her heart.
Stempenyu is amazed to find that he loves Rochale just as he loves his music and cannot love Freidl (Edna Blilious)—his wife, to whom he proposed while drunk—the same way. Just like any romance with its highs and lows, Stempenyu and Rochale finally profess their love to each other. They run away and start their own family, but the happiness is only temporary.
Stempenyu is more than just a love story. With a perfect blend of song and dance, there is an abundance of colourful characters who, with their queer habits and comic timing, manage to touch your heart. Dvossi-Malka (Orli Silbershats) and Chayim-Yossef (Alon Dahan), Rochale’s in-laws, make for an endearing couple with impeccable comic timing that the audience can’t help but love. Etl-Chaya’s (Liat Har-Lev) innocence and sensitivity as she plays the stereotypical rejected lover also leaves an impression on the audience.
The music by Assaf K. Talmudi is one of the play’s strong points as it seamlessly synchronises with the moods and feelings of the characters and manages to capture the true essence of the love affair between Stempenyu and Rochale. The beautiful choreography by Lazarov, especially during the klezmer performances, kept the audience cued in to everything that was happening on stage. Minimalist in its use of props, mostly using only four benches, the play depicts happiness, joy, love, sadness and heartbreak—all shades of life.
The performance also witnessed a protest under the banner of the Indian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel which distributed pamphlets outside the venue that the Cameri theatre deemed as a “propaganda tool for the State of Israel...in the Israeli Occupation of Palestine.”
Prathibha Prahlad, Director of the Delhi International Arts Festival, explained, “Art sensitises people to pain and teaches people empathy and tolerance.” “All artists condemn human rights violations. The purpose of this festival is to build lasting relationships between India and countries with which it has diplomatic relations.”
The standing ovation that the play’s crew received at the end proves that art communicates where language does not. “It can be a story from any country and there is something very Indian about this play,” said Noam Semel, the Director-General, Cameri Theatre.