Friday, April 4, 2014

Bread of life

The actors of Not By Bread Alone.

Occasionally, a theatrical experience is truly unique. So extra-ordinary, in fact, that the normal tools of criticism fall useless before it - because through it we get close to basic questions of what the theatre truly is, and what it can hope to achieve. 

This happens to be the case with the remarkable Not By Bread Alone (through Sunday at ArtsEmerson), from the Nalaga'at Theater Deaf-Blind Acting Ensemble, whose performers are for the most part both deaf and blind, usually due to the genetic disorder known as Usher syndrome.

Yes. They're deaf and blind - although some retain traces of either, or both, senses.  And they of course still have full access to touch, taste, smell, and all the human sensibilities.  Still, the theatrical gap here looms large - for what is theatre if not communication via sight and sound? But much of what makes Bread so compelling is the ingenuity with which these artists surmount seemingly every obstacle to make a genuine theatrical connection.  They touch us - even if they don't see us.

Not that any of these brave souls is asking for pity. They understand what it means to have never seen a sunset, or their loved ones' faces - or even a beautiful blonde; but they are calm in their forbearance of these facts. (As we tremble in our seats and wonder whether we could ever summon so much strength.) What perhaps matters more to them is their human identity, their need to not feel "like a bag, or an object," as one puts it - and their need to cue us in to their desires, their inner life, and thus beat back the loneliness of the land of silence and darkness.

See what I mean about "basic questions"? To call this quest "existential" would sound awfully high-falutin', though, before the simplicity of the theatrical means employed here.  Perhaps "elemental" is a better word. For the show is set in a kitchen, after all - yes, the actors bake bread onstage (which we're eventually invited to share). And as those loaves rise in the oven, there's plenty of time for broad, exuberantly happy mime - you'll never see more joy in performance - as well as a litany of personal revelation: one by one, the actors step forward (aided by a quiet army of stage hands, and vibrational cues from drums) to conjure for us their dreams, which are mostly poignantly sweet pleasures and vanities. Zippora, for example, wants to see a movie while eating the biggest tub of popcorn in the world (and she gets to); Bat-Sheva imagines having her hair done by "Yuri," the most in-demand hair-dresser ever; and a longed-for trip to Italy sparks a whole delightful tableau vivant, complete with pizza, the Mafia, and a blessing from the Pope.

Sometimes, though, the actors just dance, or hold hands, or sway in swings, pondering, as one puts it sans any irony, "the beauty of creation." As a warm, delicious scent rises softly around us. To be honest, by the end of the evening (which closes with a wedding, the ultimate symbol of connection), it feels like a privilege to break bread with these performers.  And it bears mentioning that the whole piece doesn't just play as tribute to the talent and strength of its actors - or the inspiration of their director, Adina Tal, but also to the community in Tel-Aviv, where Nalaga'at is apparently thriving (and where they wittily run their own restaurant, the pitch-dark Black Out, with only blind waiters!). Not to mention the Jewish community at large; for the Hebrew dialogue, the sly humor and wisdom, even something in the lyrical passion for "the small moments of life" remind us constantly of a nation renowned for reaching out to all its members - even those who can be reached by touch alone.

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