Not by Bread Alone
There is an appropriate line from this play. One of the characters says, "Just because something is written in Braille doesn't automatically make it Dostoyevsky."
Tel Aviv's Nalaga'at Deaf-Blind Acting Ensemble is the only troup of its kind, the one deaf-blind theatre company in the world -- aiming to integrate deaf-blind people into the community while allowing them to express themselves through performance. Through the ArtsEmerson: The World On Stage series, Boston audiences have the opportunity to see some of the most interesting and original international theatre, including shows like Nalaga'at's "Not by Bread Alone" (April 1-6 at the Emerson/Paramount Center Mainstage, artsemerson.org, 617-824-8400).
With the production of "Not by Bread Alone" this company proves that a deaf-blind theatre is possible, and that more sensuous theatre experiences are valuable and necessary. But this show is not the best expression of what that kind of theatre has the potential to be.
As anyone who's walked passed a bakery knows, the sensory experience of making bread is sumptuous and affective. It's thrilling to smell the yeast in the air as you enter the Paramount Mainstage theater and see the actors kneading dough onstage. This production relies on this theatrical conceit, and this is one of the key elements that has made this show popular with audiences.
At a more fundamental level, the communication between the actors on stage and the stage management is fascinating to watch. People in black costumes give the actors cues through touch and the physical vibration of drumbeats, in much the way that a typical stage manager would deliver cues through light and sound. Some actors have the ability to speak and some have the ability to see and read sign language. Other actors use interpreters translate dialogue to the audience. Of course for Boston audiences, there is also the language barrier, so the Hebrew language is translated to the audience through the use of projected subtitles. It works out to be a complex and captivating choreography.
While the actors are forming the dough and putting it into the baking pans they introduce themselves, tell us a little bit about their hopes and dreams, and then tell us why and for whom they are performing their stories.
This seems like it would be a simple and sincere pursuit, but the narrative is fragmented and dreamlike, the colors are vivid and the music is buoyant and overt, and the acting is broad, exaggerated and often mimed. This gives the show an overall circus-like atmosphere.
The Nalaga'at Theater Ensemble is made up of interesting, intelligent people whom we are led to believe are communicating their own personal stories to the audience. But these stories are never fully developed, and these stories are actually undermined by reducing them into simplistic scenarios that are (at least in part) fictional.
For example, one of the actors, Yuri, expresses to us that he is tired of being alone, and he wants to find a mate -- someone to love and mutually support, someone to connect with in an intimate and human way. This is a desire with which we can all empathize; it hooks us and leaves us waiting to hear more of his story... but we aren't given more.
Instead, three men dance around him wearing veils, but after he discovers that they're trying to fool or tease him, he pushes them off. Then Yuri and actress Genia come together and have a wedding ceremony with no real courtship or explanation of why they have formed this union. (In life, Yuri is actually married and the father of two daughters, but he isn't married to Genia.)
What did we just see? An actor expressed a desire, a longing that is complex and universal. The resolution to this complication in the plot is trite and instantaneous. That's just not good storytelling.
It's unfortunate, because this production has so many possibilities. Here we have the opportunity to learn from people who communicate in very different ways than most of us do and who have developed some of their senses much more acutely than most of us have. We have the opportunity to explore new forms of narrative and theatrical creation.
But we're not given these things. In experiencing this narrative, we end up using our eyes and our ears almost exclusively. The story is still communicated to a seeing and hearing audience through spoken and written language and visual pictures on stage.
"Not by Bread Alone" promised a sensuous experience that would connect me to the hopes and dreams of people unlike myself in a world different from my own, "a tour through their inner worlds of darkness and silence." Those objectives were not delivered.
In the end, the experience did not connect me to the actors or show me anything of their world. I was left knowing more about their internal worlds through reading the program than through seeing them on stage. I was given the vision of the director, a seeing and hearing person, and I was left with something patronizing to both the audience and actors... that, and the central conceit of bread-making on stage. The essential irony is that, despite its title, this show was bread alone.
This being said, ArtsEmerson's next show, "Lebensraum," is phenomenal. It provides sensuous and intriguing theatre that does not rely on written or spoken language; it's purely visual storytelling. The artistry and talent the show is built upon are breathtaking. And though the narrative is simple, the storytelling is rich and multifaceted; it does not expound. It allows the audience to actively participate with their minds and imagination. It does everything I wish "Not by Bread Alone" could have.
"Not by Bread Alone" continues through April 6 at the Emerson/Paramount Center MainStage. for tickets or more information, please visit artsemerson.org or phone 617-824-8400