by Lynn on May 20, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ont.

Written, directed and performed by Nir Paldi
Musical direction and composed by Adam Pleeth
Choreographer and performed by Orian Michaeli
Set by Francesco Gorni
Costumes by Serena Montesissa
Lighting by Peter Harrison
Musician, Pete Aves
Starring: Tomoko Komura
Orian Michaeli
Amy Nostbakken
Nir Paldi
Deborah Pugh
Stefanie Sourial

An unsettling, shattering piece of political theatre that will have you rethinking almost everything about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for starters.

The Story. The press release gives a hint of what Ballad of the Burning Star is about. “A drag musical about identity, humanity, and the Israeli-Palestine Conflict….Star is a larger-than-life drag queen from Israel. Armed with music, killer heels and a lethal troop of divas, an enraged Star executes a story of victimhood, persecution, aggression and love. With shrapnel sharp voices and moves as smooth as an oiled tank chain, this cabaret troupe invites you on a journey into the core of the conflicted Jewish State.”

Being a cabaret, there are stories that flit from side to side illuminating positively and negatively the Israeli side and the Palestinian side. There are angry and innocent people on both sides of the stories.

At the centre is a family. A mother and father, their two sons Israel, the eldest and Eithan his younger brother. Their grandmother is a holocaust survivor. They live happily in a fenced in town in the West bank. And then the happy situation turns. Tensions rise. Conflict happens and attitudes are challenged.

The Production. Musician Peter Aves, plays the drums and supplies the sound effects as well. A chair with a huge gold Star of David on the back, is to the right of him. A large gold Star of David is suspended from the flies. An announcement is heard to put away any bombs and not to be tempted to press the red button on any bomb that might have been brought in.

Star (Nir Paldi) makes her grand entrance with a flourish. (I will use the feminine pronoun for the character and the masculine for the actor.) She flips back the stage curtain and flounces downstage. She wears a short, black wig. The make-up is exaggerated; black eyes, severe eye-bows, red lipstick, a white foundation; a low-cut dress and gold not quite killer-heels. There is nothing soft about Nir Paldi’s voice as Star. It’s direct, forceful and commanding. Star is like the Em Cee in Cabaret but without the charm.

She prowls the audience picking people on whom to focus. She calls them “Sweetie” in a disarming way. As a reward for being a good sport she gives a woman a sparkly gold Star of David to stick on her jacket. She does. The woman is asked to come on stage to show her star and she does that too, smiling, with her hands out getting into the mood. I suck air. Another person is singled out. Another sparkly, gold Star of David is handed out and the person sticks that on her blouse and again is asked to show it off. Another smile and a flourishy bow. The irony of that gold (yellow) Star of David on a jacket seems lost on these people. I swallow hard.

After this her backup group of five women called the Starlettes dance on with acrobatic flourish and are introduced. They will play all the characters, including a dog. They will be in motion for the whole show. The frantic dancing and movement is thanks to choreographer and performer, Orian Michaeli. Star reigns over them with a tight fist ready to pounce and yell at any wrong move. Sometimes they will reply in kind, but mostly the power of Star (Star power?) will prevail over her troupe.

The troupe has various routines. There are three recent examples of anti-Semitism that the group enumerate through raised voices and gritted teeth. There is the Tour to Auschwitz in which one of the Starlettes says to the audience that they are to imagine they are in a gas chamber and to note the scratch marks on the walls of prisoners who were frantic to get out. And there is the List of (Jewish) Persecutions that begins in 1200 and counts down almost yearly through the centuries.

It’s at this moment, around the 1300s that Star says to us that this would be a good time to go to the bathroom because the list will go on and on. She takes the chair with the Star of David and sets it in the aisle, sits on it and carries on a conversation with the audience, ignoring the Starlettes who keep recounting persecutions from centuries ago. One character objects to being ignored because it has taken her so long to memorize the list and it’s difficult.

At every turn in these routines, Star interrupts and upstages the Starlettes from their recitation. The ironic point is that the slavish devotion to the minutiae of past persecutions keeps any person/people mired in that dark place. This is a dramatic technique that is stunning.

My main concern, and it’s not a quibble, is that almost every one of the actresses playing the Starlettes seems to have been directed by Nir Paldi to scream everything. Coupled with that are the accents that are used, loud percussion and it makes a lot of their dialogue almost incomprehensible.

The sections that deal with the family at the center of Ballad of the Burning Star is terribly moving because we see that both sides are wounded and in an invidious position. Nir Paldi shows the good and bad sides of a complex story, not in a simplistic way, but in a clear-eyed way. The last scene, done quietly, with no Starlettes, without the drag gear, is simply devastating. Theatre that moves you too your toes.

Comment. This is a compelling piece of theatre. I’m reminded of Robin Soames’ play, The Arab-Israeli Cookbook that examined the Arab-Israeli conflict in a quiet, fair-minded way, showing both sides of the situation, using food as the link.

In Ballad of the Burning Star, Nir Paldi is more assertive, aggressive even, who also shows many sides of a complex story, but with an edge. The borders and boundaries are fluid, shifting, keeping people in that situation, off-balanced. It’s unsettling, disturbing and so important as good theatre must be.

Acting Up Stage Company and Why Not Theatre in association with Koffler Centre of the Arts present a Theatre Ad Infinitum production:

Run: May 19-24, 2015.
Cast: 6, 1 man, 5 women
Running Time: 70 minutes.


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