A week before opening in two productions at Symphony Space (as Allen Ginsberg’s mother in "Kaddish L’Naomi" and in the autobiographical one-woman play "Summer of Aviyah") one of Israel’s leading ladies was giving a solo performance of a different kind.
Seated in the cafe of the theater complex on Upper Broadway, the actress and author Gila Almagor, 64, depicted scenes from her extraordinary career. Her only prop? A white paper napkin.
It stands in for the script of "The Diary of Anne Frank," which Almagor, as a teenage understudy for a more "mature" star, memorized in 48 hours instead of the expected two weeks. Later, the napkin serves as the manuscript of Almagor’s acclaimed autobiography, which she pretends to read nervously to a publisher. It ends up wrapped around Almagor’s left ring finger as she talks about how four years ago she and her husband of 40 years, Ya’acov Agmon, the general director of Israel’s national theater, renewed their vows in an onstage ceremony.
The napkin first appears in the award-winning actress’s impromptu performance as the sheet of writing paper on which a 15-year-old Gila Alexandrovich, having arrived friendless and shekel-less in Tel Aviv, wrote her name for the admittance officer at Habimah’s newly opened drama school.
"Look at this name very carefully," Almagor remembered telling the woman, who had refused her entry because she was too young. "If something happens to me, you are responsible, you are to be blamed. And if I become something, I want you to remember that you didn’t help me even just to register for an audition at Habimah."
The woman relented, and soon the ingenue was on her way to becoming something significant indeed. At 16 she was the youngest actor cast in the company’s production of Thornton Wilder’s "The Skin of Our Teeth." That play closed before it opened, but a few lucky breaks launched Almagor (who changed her surname to the Hebrew for "no fear") on a trajectory to leading roles onstage with Habimah, then with Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theatre, as well as on screen in more than 40 movies. Two memoirs, "The Summer of Aviyah" (1987) and "Under the Domim Tree" (1992), were made into films and have become required reading in Israeli schools.
Almagor’s celebrity at home has yet to be exported to the United States, and so she is able to stroll Manhattan’s streets unmolested, to hail a cab on Broadway without causing a stir and to sit in a cafe for hours uninterrupted while she unspools her life’s story with the dramatic intensity of a fresh revelation.
One feels the rush of excitement, for example, when she tells of her departure from the children’s home where she was sent to live during her mentally ill mother’s frequent hospitalizations. Pointing to an imaginary duffle bag, she lingers over her packing list: "Two pairs of pants, one khaki, one blue. Two embroidered blouses. I picked up two stones and a thorn from the grass" (souvenirs) "and I went."
Audiences will have a chance to experience the power of Almagor’s stage performances this weekend in productions that mark Habimah’s return to New York after 40 years. Almagor last performed here a decade ago, she said, in "Summer of Aviyah," at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Once a tomboy in pigtails, Almagor today is luminous and elegant with large brown eyes and hair pulled in a tight chignon at the nape of her neck. But she retains a tenacity and determination characteristic of her post-Holocaust generation of Israelis. Her mother was a survivor and a former partisan; her father, a policeman in the British Army, was killed by an Arab sniper when her mother was five months pregnant.
"My father was 25 years old when he died, and he didn’t leave a scratch on this earth," Almagor said of her enigmatic father. Her "crazy ambition" and tireless activity is partly a reaction to her father’s anonymity. "I want to leave a scratch," she said. "Just a scratch."
The star of later Israeli films like "Siege," "The House on Chelouche Street" and "Life According to Agfa," by the early sixties Almagor was already making a mark with bigger and meatier roles, but she felt she needed more polish if she were to continue to shine. She left the Cameri after eight years to take classes in New York, studying acting with Uta Hagen and Lee Strasberg and modern dance with Anna Sokolow.
Back in Tel Aviv in 1965, she carried on with her prolific career, making a film almost yearly. Then she hit a wall. Promised roles were withdrawn, she said. One devastating blow followed another.
Deeply depressed, she could barely drag herself out of bed until the day her daughter, Hagar, then 12, stopped at the doorstep on her way to school and said, "When I get back, you’re not crying anymore," Almagor remembered. "I looked at her face, and it was me looking at my crazy mother."
The realization sparked a creative flurry that 10 days later resulted in the first of Almagor’s four books for young children. (Her latest, "Erga: A Girl Who Came Out of a Dream, about adoption, is due out this week.)
"Summer of Aviyah," published in 1987, recounts the two and a half months in 1951 that Almagor spent with her mother in Petach Tikva and depicts a young girl’s quest to discover more about her missing father.
"In a way, it’s an Israeli story," Almagor concedes. "But you don’t have to be Jewish or Israeli to relate to it. The fact is, it’s about a child in distress, and a child in distress is a child in distress."
The book has been translated into 16 languages, and Almagor has performed her stage adaptation over a thousand times (she claims to have stopped counting) completing the first 400 performances in the first 20 months alone. Almagor also starred as the mother in the 1988 film version.
That experience laid some of the groundwork for the role Almagor took on three years ago in Habimah’s international tour of "Kaddish L’Naomi," a Hebrew-language play directed by Hanon Snir and based on Allen Ginsberg’s elegy to his mother and chronicle of her descent into insanity during his adolescence.
Familiar as she was with her own mother’s mental illness, Almagor considered the role as an acting challenge. "I have to play Naomi, and she is a different person than I play in ‘Summer of Aviyah,’ " she said of Ginsberg’s mother, a Newark schoolteacher and avowed communist who first became ill before Allen was born in 1926.
Even Almagor’s film character is "the mother," not "my mother," she explained.
Aside from acting and publishing, Almagor is active in artists’ associations for adults and children and holds Tel Aviv city council’s arts portfolio. She is proudest of her work as the founder of Gila Almagor’s Wishes Foundation, which provides chronically ill Jewish and Arab children with gifts, celebrity performances and trips. "Anything they want," said Almagor, who started working with sick children 26 years ago.
"This is my ‘mifal,’ my life’s work, this and my family, not my career," Almagor said, inadvertently folding and unfolding the white napkin on the table in front of her.
Gila Almagor performs in two plays at Symphony Space, Broadway at 95th Street, Manhattan, (212) 864-5400: Kaddish L’Naomi" Fri.-Sun., Sept. 19-21, 8 p.m. and "Summer of Aviyah," Sat.-Sun., Sept. 20-21, 3 p.m. $50-$25.