‘The Biggest Thing We’ve Ever Done’


International companies regularly swing by Symphony Space on the Upper West Side to perform in events such as "Haiti! The Spirit of Freedom," presented this week by the Pangea Theatre Company, or the World Music Institute’s varied programs, which this season include Indian, Scottish and Judeo-Andalusian music and begin tonight with Omar Bashir in a tribute to his father, the famed Iraqi lute player Munir Bashir.

But despite 25 years of experience hosting troupes from around the globe, an upcoming visit by Habimah, Israel’s national theater, is "the biggest thing we’ve ever done," Isaiah Sheffer, the founding artistic director of the theater complex, said.

Habimah takes the newly constructed stage at the recently renovated Peter Norton Symphony Space Sept. 18 to 21 with two productions starring Israel’s "first lady of theater and film," Gila Almagor. They are "Kaddish L’Naomi," a Hebrew translation of a drama based on Allen Ginsburg’s poem, "Kaddish," and "Summer of Aviyah," Almagor’s autobiographical solo show.

Bringing the Israeli troupe to a New York stage for the first time in 40 years presented Symphony Space with an unprecedented and seemingly never-ending list of logistical challenges, Sheffer told The Jewish Week. "It’s ordinary show business stuff, but for us it’s a big, new thing."

The decision to invite Habimah landed Sheffer and his staff with the work of procuring visas and arranging accommodations (including access to the JCC in Manhattan’s swimming pool) for 23 company members and spouses. The Hebrew-language performance required the creation of a system for screening super titles, and the presence of Israel’s national theater company required enhanced security provisions.

Symphony Space is currently preparing for the arrival of a massive shipping container filled with scenery and costumes. "It’ll arrive on this side," Sheffer said, gesturing out the window of the Thalia Cafe to a quiet block of 95th Street. Together with officials at the Israeli Consulate in New York, Sheffer is still seeking funds to cover the production’s $115,000 budget.

Until now, Symphony Space has served mainly as a host venue for touring companies, in addition to producing its own programs, such as the "Wall-to-Wall" music marathons and the "Selected Shorts" literary series on National Public Radio. Habimah is the first international company that Sheffer and his staff have sponsored.

Sheffer got the idea when he heard that Habimah, the theater troupe founded in Moscow in 1918 that later moved to Tel Aviv, had been touring the Russian capital with its Hebrew-language production of "Kaddish L’Naomi."

"That clicked it in my mind," Sheffer said. "It made me think of Habimah coming, but to do an American author’s original conception, translated and adapted into a Hebrew play."

Ginsburg’s poem relates his experience as a young boy watching his mother succumb to insanity. Similarly, in "Summer of Aviyah," Almagor relates a summer she spent away from boarding school with her mentally ill mother. The play was adapted from the actress’ book of the same name, which was also made into an acclaimed Israeli film.

Several years ago Sheffer had been approached by the New York-Israel Cultural Cooperation Commission to explore potential program exchanges between Israel and Symphony Space. The commission, a joint venture between Israel and New York, was founded in 1998.

States everywhere are facing financial crunches, and with government funding cut or stretched tight, companies and venues are left to make up the difference. "It’s difficult to schlep theater [anywhere]," explained Ofra Ben Ya’akov, Israel’s Consul for Cultural Affairs, who is working with Symphony Space on the project. "And to schlep it to New York is more difficult" because of overwhelming competition for a limited number of venues.

The New York commission’s term expired in April, but it came through with a promised $45,000 grant. Habimah raised $20,000 on its own for airfare, and Sheffer is closing in on the additional $50,000 needed for production costs. Through an appeal made at an evening of "Selected Shorts," Sheffer managed to get an upright piano donated for Habimah’s performances.

Sitting in the cafÈ at Symphony Space, Sheffer, dressed in a pressed blue button-down and gray trousers, was crisp and casual, if a little overwhelmed.

The closest Symphony Space has come to a project this complex, Sheffer said, was the 12-hour Wall-to-Wall Bernstein marathon in 1997. "There were so many worlds of people who knew Lenny who had to be a part of that," Shaffer said, referring to performers and fans of the American composer and conductor’s works of liturgical, classical, cabaret, Broadway, and movie music.

"Kaddish L’Naomi" should attract a similarly broad-based audience, said Sheffer, who noted that Ginsburg himself had once appeared at Symphony Space in a program with the composer Philip Glass.

"This would be something that would appeal to not only the Israeli expats in New York, people interested in seeing a legendary theater company," Sheffer said. "And also I thought it might appeal to the poetry crowd, to the gay crowd, and that it would be something that wouldn’t be too risky for symphony space."

Still, Sheffer is anxious about ticket sales. "If it does well, we’ll break even," he said.

For information about Habimah’s New York performances and related events, see "Film," "Spoken Word" and "Theater" listings in the Arts Guide on page 42-43.