One of Israel’s most recognized playwrights is making a rare appearance in Canada, leading two lectures at Toronto universities and helping usher in the production of his play Deceived.
Motti Lerner’s play about a real-life Israeli spy will run at the Toronto Centre for the Arts this month, presented by Teatron Theatre.
Deceived tracks the story of Jonathan Pollard, the American Navy intelligence analyst imprisoned since 1987 for spying for Israel. Last January, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked U.S. President Barack Obama for clemency for Pollard. He was denied.
Written in 1993, Deceived is more than just Pollard’s story, says Lerner in a phone interview. “The play is a vehicle to explore North American Jewry’s relationship with Israel. Who are you loyal to, America or Israel, and what happens when you have to choose between them?”
Lerner stresses Deceived is a work of fiction based on Pollard’s life. He couldn’t truly get inside the incarcerated man’s head, despite visiting him at his North Carolina prison where he’s serving a life sentence for espionage. “His inner world will always be a mystery,” Lerner says.
Pollard’s first wife, Anne, is central to the relationship drama in the play, but there’s an interesting Toronto connection to Pollard’s other partner: his current wife lives in the city and Lerner hopes she attends the show.
Lerner is busy during his five-day visit to Toronto: besides meeting Tarragon Theatre’s artistic director Richard Rose, he’s leading a public talk at the University of Toronto on playwriting. The same day he’s lecturing on dramaturgy at Ryerson University.
He’s a wanted man for a reason: Lerner has won four awards for his plays, including a 1995 Prime Minister of Israel Award for Writers. For 30 years, his plays have been staged across the world, and his risqué content has often focused on Israeli themes and protagonists. Some of his best-known plays include Kastner, Exile in Jerusalem and Hard Love.
Lerner has noticed his work has found more acceptance outside Israel than within its borders. “Theatre used to be relevant and radical in Israel,” he remembers, “but now attendance is poor and it doesn’t have the same edge as it used to.” Since Israeli companies might not be warm to his plays, Lerner has found Europe and North America to be the most encouraging examples of theatre’s bright future.
“When plays cross cultures and have depth, they can be staged anywhere,” he says.
Lerner has long admired Anton Chekhov and his approach to theatre, a subject he explored deeply in a recent book. “It’s fascinating to study how Chekhov had a certain method to write a play.”
When it comes to writing plays, Lerner pens everything in Hebrew and translators bring it to English audiences. But is something lost in translation? Depends on the context, Lerner says. In Deceived, for instance, the language isn’t too focused on Israeli culture and slang, but another play may include material only a Hebrew audience fully understands. Plays rooted in a religious context are always difficult to translate, Lerner notes.
Next for Lerner is another play recently completed, this time focusing on another dark period in Israel’s history: Baruch Goldstein, a member of the Jewish Defence League, killed 29 Muslims in 1994 when he opened fire on a mosque in Hebron. It’s the kind of controversial play some Israeli theatres wouldn’t touch.
“But theatre companies need to take risks,” Lerner urges. “They need to have less fear in order to present radical ideas.”
Deceived runs from Nov. 9 to 20 at Toronto Centre for the Arts (Studio Theatre), 5040 Yonge St. Ticket prices range from $36 to $42. 416-250-3708.