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Deaf and blind Israeli performers fascinate audience at the Ohio

Deaf and blind Israeli performers fascinate audience at the Ohio

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

If one of the major purposes of theater is to make members of the audience feel and view things in a different light, then “Not By Bread Alone” has to be an unquestionable success.  The “play” explores the hopes, dreams and memories of a group of men and women.  It also explores their isolation, frustrations and loneliness.

At the start of the adventure, the audience views a group of men and women, in chef’s hats and aprons, knead, shape and place dough onto baking sheets.  Viewing these “bakers,” it quickly becomes obvious that they are not looking at the dough or speaking to each other.  What’s wrong with this picture?

The members of the cast are members of the acting company of Israel’s Nalaga’at Theater.  They are all deaf and blind.  They are, as one member of the company states, “a whole company of Helen Kellers.”

The company was founded in 2007 and is now housed in their own performance space, which also has a restaurant connected to it, which is operated by the cast and similarly afflicted people.  The complex is situated in a center in Jaffa, next to Tel Aviv.

“Nalaga’at” means “please touch” in Hebrew.  It is therefore not surprising that the company’s second show is entitled “Not By Bread Alone,” as the actions and contact feed the souls of both the performers and audience alike.

During the performance the bread actually baked and the smell permeated the Ohio Theatre during the 75-minute performance.  Following the last “line,” the audience was invited up on the stage to taste the “lechem,” (the Hebrew word for bread) and interact with the cast with the assistance of interpreters.

As the play starts, each of the 11 actors is wearing a featureless mask.  As the first scene unfolds, each, with the unobtrusive aid of a helper/interpreter, removes his/her mask as their story and identity is revealed.  As the flow of ideas continues, we learn the hopes, dreams, and frustrations of being born, or becoming deaf and blind.  In reality, only three can speak, mainly in Hebrew or Russian.  Most are carriers of Usher Syndrome, an inherited disorder which usually causes blindness and accompanying deafness.  Several are related to each other.

Each, in their tales, report the importance of interaction and a desire for human connection and the need to communicate.  They have learned to do so through learning Russian and Hebrew sign language, touch-signing, glove language (each joint on the hand symbolizes a letter and is typed by one person on the hand of another), and Braille.  Several wear hearing aids which helps them distinguish sounds.

The sound of a drum beat occasionally is heard.  This is a cue that announces the start of a new scene.  The actors feel the vibration and are aware of the need to transition to the next experience.

Those expecting the actors to present a plot driven show, like those presented by the  now defunct Cleveland Signstage Theatre (also known as Fairmount Theater of the Deaf), may be disappointed.

In reality what is performed are a series of what some might perceive to be awkward vignettes.  There is a wedding, a visit to a hairdresser, a trip to Italy which includes “seeing” the Pope, and some Laurel and Hardy slapstick routines.  Hokey, yes, but they are acting out the “bucket list” wishes of the cast and are performing within the limits of their physical restrictions.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “NOT BY BREAD ALONE” is everything good theatre should be….a thought- provoking, experience-broadening, emotionally inspiring experience that should open the eyes and hearts of the viewer.  Mazel tov to Adina Tai and the Nalaga’at Deaf-Blind Theater Ensemble of Israel.