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The International Jerusalem Puppet Festival returns for 30th year

CM 19/08/2021

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If your idea of puppet theater – especially if you hail from Britain or one of the former colonies thereof – is a seaside vignette of Punch of Judy, the International Jerusalem Puppet Festival should disambiguate any such idea of rudimentary hand-operated entertainment.
The 30th edition of the festival kicks off at the Train Theater on Sunday, with a program chock-full of quality work for all ages lined up throughout the five-day program. It is a celebratory event whichever way you look at it. Not only does it bring the curtain down on three decades of the event, the theater is also marking 40 years of artistic endeavor, with the company finally about to make the move to far more spacious and modern new premises in Liberty Bell Gardens. 
Artistic director Shahar Marom, a seasoned puppeteer himself, gave me the royal tour of the impressive layout built with the help of a generous donation of the Davidson family from London and the Jerusalem Foundation. The new complex incorporates two auditoria with all the requisite modern technologically advanced fixtures and fittings, an outdoor stage, a cafe, and an outdoor space for various activities for children. 

By all accounts, Marom and the company have come a long way. I popped over to see the new facilities as construction folk were applying the finishing touches to the place ahead of the festival. Anyone who ever visited the original diminutive Train Theater quarters, over at the eastern end of the park, cannot fail to be wowed by the new base. 
“This isn’t exactly a palatial home, but it is a lot bigger and better equipped than the old one,” Marom notes with more than a touch of understatement.
His observation is put in corporeal perspective as we walk past an old train car. It was there that it all began, in a quiet corner of the delightful Jerusalem park that now houses the brand new center, and the festival. 
“The train car will probably be turned into offices. We need more office space,” Marom observes, adding that there is time for that to happen. “Anyway, lots of people work from home these days, with the pandemic situation. So, for now, we should be able to manage.”
WHAT MAROM has managed to do is put together a varied and inviting slew of productions, across a stretch of themes and presentation vehicles, for the forthcoming festival. As usual, the junior crowd is the focus of attention but there are plenty of slots aimed at adult culture consumers.
In fact, while not exactly a misnomer in the context of the festival, the age parameters of the term “adult” have been flexed to include teenagers from the age of 14. That means that older youth can attend the Silence Makes Perfect show on August 24 (9 p.m.). The work is the result of an unlikely collaboration between director, puppeteer and singer Yael Rasooly, and pianist and musical director of the acclaimed contemporary classical music Meitar Ensemble Amit Dolev. 
 ‘SILENCE MAKES Perfect’ explores the troubling issue of violence against women and children. (credit: Ran Daniel Kopiler) ‘SILENCE MAKES Perfect’ explores the troubling issue of violence against women and children. (credit: Ran Daniel Kopiler)
Silence Makes Perfect is about a dark troubling aspect of life – sexual violence, predominantly toward women. Sadly, that has been around, probably, since the dawn of time but the situation has worsened since COVID-19 struck. Lockdowns meant that families were often cooped up at home for extended periods of time, which led to heightened tension, angry outpourings and physical abuse.
Rasooly has been painfully aware of that sorry state of affairs for a long time and has been using her craft to get the message out there. 
“For me it is a long affair, and it has been part of my work for quite some time,” she says. “This show is actually part of a trilogy. It is an ongoing trilogy that I am still creating.” 
The Jerusalem Puppet Theater Festival production is the second installment. 
“I gradually realized it is a trilogy about violence toward women and children, and about rape culture. Women can be violent too, but there is definitely a pandemic of men being violent towards women and children.”
Rasooly’s choice of the term “pandemic” appeared particularly poignant, and set me wondering about how the politicians and powers-that-be relate to that, and whether they may, at some stage, begin to act in order to address a global plague for which there is no “quick fix” vaccine. According to a recent report issued by the World Economic Forum (WEF), every hour of every day six women are killed by men around the world. That is as horrifying as it is staggering. And last year’s Global Gender Gap Report, compiled by the WEF, found that between a fifth and close to a half of women globally suffer physical or sexual abuse from their male partners.
Clearly that is a topic that needs to feature prominently in public discourse, and one which Rasooly is doing her best to bring to our attention with her puppet-based series. 
“How Lovely was the first chapter, which I made at the School of Visual Theater, which I performed at the International Jerusalem Puppet Festival in 2006 or 2007,” she says. 
It clearly struck a chord, an international chord. 
“I toured with that show for 13 years, in 15 countries.”
NOW SHE has teamed up with Dolev, for whom this is something of a professional departure, personal ties notwithstanding. 
“Yael and I have known each other a long time and we have always wanted to do something together,” he explains. 
And so the pianist entered into, for him, uncharted waters. 
“I saw How Lovely and we changed all the music for the show. That made it easier for me to join in the continuation [of the trilogy].” 
It is not just about puppets. 
“There are puppets and all sorts of masks in the show,” Dolev adds. “In fact, in many parts the masks are the main thing.” 
The facial props are the brainchild of Ran Daniel Kopiler. 
Naturally, for Dolev, music is a major element of the proceedings. 
“The subject matter is very challenging, and we had to leave things open. That is part of the essence of his show, that it has to constantly move.” 
That necessarily involves a degree of extemporization. 
“With such dramatic material you have to keep on the move,” he notes. 
Silence Makes Perfect is a work of art, designed to draw people into the aesthetics but, naturally, also prompt responses. 
“We have to get this front and center. It’s the only way,” Rasooly exclaims. “We have to talk about this.” 
The show ran four times before the festival, with each followed by a discussion with members of the audience. That is also planned for next week’s slot. Rasooly and Dolev have been invited to take Silence Makes Perfect on the road, to the world’s leading puppet theater festival at Charleville-Mézières, in France, pandemic travel restrictions permitting. That is quite a feather in the pair’s professional cap.
THERE IS plenty more stirring and alluring stuff in this year’s celebratory festival lineup. The older sector’s program also includes a play called Dybbuk.com, by Moti Brecher, which addresses Jewish identity, and an evocative wordless offering from The Galilee Multicultural Theater – Zikit called 11:11 p.m. in which the protagonist takes a sober look back on his life.
The junior section takes in around 30 shows, for three-year-olds through to 12-year-olds, both inside the new complex and outside in the park grounds. Many of the top children’s theater works written since the pandemic kicked off are featured in the festival agenda. My Biggest Sister of All, a Train Theater original, is an entertaining stage adaptation based on Uzi Ben Canaan’s well-known book of that name. Another house production offers an innovative adaptation of nursery rhyme classic Mother Goose, while The Big Bang, a new work by the Itim Ensemble and creator Zvi Sahar, will present a fictional fantasy that takes place in space, in a puppet-cinema combo. 
The 40th birthday celebrations also include the Gifts Exhibition, with all manner of artifacts designed by artists who have performed under the theater’s cozy umbrella since its inception in 1981. The park will have a special area for family-oriented activities, with all kinds of fun installations and activities. The festival will also pay tribute to Dalia Yaffa Maayan, who served as the theater company’s general manager and artistic director 1989-2018, and who passed away last month.
Marom, who shared the artistic helm for a while with Maayan, besides participating in the festival as an artist himself for over a decade, says he is keen to maintain and develop the tradition of visual theater. 
“The festival came out of visual theater, and it’s not just about puppets. There are all sorts of objects used in the productions.” 
Marom tends to cast the festival programming net far and wide. 
“With my artistic approach I like to take the festival in those directions. This is also image theater, and there are a lot of works connected to body and sound. I spread the variety of works that come into our theatrical range. I like to bring in theatrical works that I think are relevant to contemporary theater.”
It appears to be bearing fruits. 
“I select works aimed at children and at adults, and the festival has gained a good reputation all over the world,” Marom continues. “In normal – non-pandemic – times we have an international showcase event, and people such as Yael Rasooly started out with us, and now she has an international career.”
Marom has lofty goals for the theater company. 
“I like to try to accommodate and proliferate as much art and projects as possible here. My title for the Train Theater today is ‘Children’s Cultural Center.’ This is a place that pools quality culture for children, from the age of two.”
OF COURSE, now that Ministry of Health coronavirus guidelines are a little freer, although who knows for how long, Marom and his cohorts can unveil the magic of puppet theater to youngsters right in front of their hungry receptive eyes, rather than on Zoom session screens. That, he feels, is of the utmost importance in a child’s formative years, and can lead to bigger and better things later in life. 
“Children want to encounter art firsthand and there are plenty of works that incorporate new media. Like the work of Zvi Saar who has two shows in this year’s festival.”  
As far as Marom is concerned, much more goes into the event than just the traditional puppet format. There are some frontier-bending items in this year’s program. 
“There is Control Freak by Kulu Orr [for the eight-year-old-and-over crowd] in which he builds all sorts of computers and uses them to make music with people. For me, even without puppets, that is what fuses this work with the festival. He connects performance with objects and sound, examining a different stage idiom.” 
The strict discipline definition is clearly not the crux of matter here. 
All of which leads to a fascinating, multifaceted world of magic for kids and adults alike. The two offshore productions that were due to appear at the festival were, sadly, thwarted by the fluid corona restrictions here, but there are plenty of gems and surprises to be had over at Liberty Bell Gardens next week.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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