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Small in size, big on laughter

An Israeli comedy troupe satirises the human condition in a language that everyone can understand

Published on December 18, 2007

Small in size, big on laughter


 Walking into Theatre 1, a semi-thrust playhouse seating about 300 people, at Tzavta, a centre for fringe theatre in downtown Tel Aviv, the audience espies an actor in a green tree suit downstage left, engulfed by highly dramatic lighting.

Oh, no, not another Disney production! Actually far from it - the characters in fancy costumes in this opening scene are enthusiastically searching for the killer of the king and the weapons used. These range from the possible and probable to the insane and absurd.

One of the secrets of comedy is breaking expectations and so the scene is suddenly interrupted by a public announcement, warning us to turn off our mobile phones. The announcer articulates each word carefully and emphatically, "This is the-a-tre, not a jun-gle in Af-ri-ca".

We're watching the madcap comedy "Born to Bite" by Tziporela, a 10-member ensemble that utilises many types of comedy, from the physical to the verbal. Their skits aim to satirise and criticise human fallacies in everything from modern relationships to military training, and are both culture-specific and universal.

In one scene, a woman, played by an actor in a blond wig, is buying potatoes, tomatoes and onions at a market. The store has run out of onions, but she doesn't seem to understand. Finally, the clerk tries one last way to reason with her.

"If you take the 'tatoes' out of potatoes, what'd you get?," he asks. "Pot," she replies. "Now, if you take the **** out of onions, what'd you get?" "But there's no **** in onions." "That's right, there's no ****in' onions!"

One of their most hilarious sketches was also one of the shortest. An actor appears downstage right, trying his best to set down a chair with uneven legs. Finally settled in the obviously uncomfortable chair after all his struggles, with great drama he intones, "I feel thatů", then the stage lights suddenly go dark, and we're in another scene. Before anyone can respond with a "what the ****!", we're already laughing.

Another memorable scene is set, boldly enough, in a cemetery, which is minimally conveyed by a single coffin placed downstage centre. Two beautiful women are apparently mourning the recently deceased man, blubbering and wailing gibberish. Upon realising they're in competition, they attempt to outdo each other with florid displays of romantic memories, ranging from love letters to recorded love tunes. Things degenerate into a catfight over the grave.

Then, a gentleman in a neat suit with a bow tie appears, and his highly emotional mourning reveals that his relationship with the dead man was more than just friendly. The catfight shifts its direction as the two women start battling over the newcomer. Well, we already know his sexual orientation and so in the end the women's expressions of love aren't heard by anyone except themselves. Quick blackout, of course, and the playhouse is again filled with wild laughter.

From the hilarious performance, comprising short sketches of various lengths and different subject matters, it was easy for the audience to divine the strength of the troupe's team spirit, and The Nation's interview with two members further elaborates this.

"We're the same group that's been working together professionally for two and a half years now. We formed Tziporela after attending the same class for three years at the Nisan Nativ Acting Studio in Tel Aviv," says Omri Doron.

"We perform every weekend, and we also do other things together, like jogging in the mornings and playing basketball twice a week. 'The group' is very important to us."

The group comprises performers with various interests, though. "Each member of the group has their own influences. I really like Monty Python and 'The Simpsons'," says Lotus Etrog, who's half half-Israeli and half-Japanese. "I also like dance works by Pina Bausch."

Given this diversity, ideas often clash. The fact that, unlike in most theatre companies, there's no clearly defined director or writer makes us wonder who has the final say in their creation process.

"We all do. It's tough to understand, and sometimes we're engaged in long talks," Doron explains. "It's a very democratic community," Etrog agrees.

And what's the secret of performing comedy, which lots of actors around the world deem more difficult to deliver than tragedy or drama?

"I think it's the fact that we really enjoy it up there [on stage] with one another. Otherwise, we couldn't have lasted for two and a half years," says Doron.

"Another thing is the rhythm," adds Gal Friedman, who portrays the tree, a role at which his partners say he excels.

"We have to match each other's rhythm in every sketch. There's rhythm and timing in delivering each line."

In total, the troupe has collectively devised about 60 skits, and they're constantly writing new ones to deal with contemporary issues and events. They meet to decide the skit selection and order before each weekend's performance.

"It's really a mix of things, like a big salad. It provides solutions for young people who couldn't find this elsewhere. This is like a new genre for them - it's theatre, dance, music and many other things," Etrog concludes.

Good comedy may not be universal, and examples of that can be found in a good number of Hollywood movies. But the four women and six men of Tziporela prove that great comedy by tight ensemble work can break through all sorts of cultural boundaries.

Because of that, we'd love to see them perform here in Thailand some time.

The troupe's website is Tziporela.com (Hebrew only) and the talented comic ensemble can be reached at tziporela@gmail.com.

The writer can be contacted at Pawit.M @ chula.ac.th. His media trip to Tel Aviv was courtesy of the Israel Embassy, Bangkok.

 Pawit Mahasarinand

 The Nation

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