If theater is important to you, it's because you've had that moment in a theater, when something absolutely stunning and unexpected comes roaring at you like an artistic freight train hell-bent for perfection. It makes your eyes pop open, or your jaw literally drop; maybe the hair on the back of your neck stands straight up. It's hard to quantify the recipe, but like one Supreme Court Justice famously said about pornography, you know it when you see it.
That's why audiences make pilgrimage to the Edinburgh Fringe. They are searching for it, an actor, a plot, a writer, a piece of music, a theatrical image -- and when they see it, they know. Too often, Americans especially view theater as something that is only done in the English-speaking world. One of the coolest things about Edinburgh is finding a hidden gem from the great big wide world of theater, done by companies outside the U.S. and UK.
It happened to me three nights ago, and I wanted to tell you all right away, all my best new theater friends on Huffington Post! A play with a ridiculous name, The Elephant and the Mouse, presented by a brand new Israeli company of young actors, Repertory Theater, had just delivered the biggest jolt of theatrical lightning I'd experienced in a long time. When the play was finished and the ovation over, I ran out to the hallway to try and find somebody, anybody, who could tell me who the hell this playwright was, because his work knocked me sideways in the best way possible. Surprise after surprise, turn after turn, delight after delight! I had never heard of this writer before, and I needed to hear all about him, because I now needed to read every play this genius has ever written. I imagined he'd had great training, and a long career, or maybe he was a child genius. All I knew before I walked into the theater was that the company came from Israel. And since nobody prints programs at the Fringe, I was without the traditional descriptions and recitations to guide me.
If I were an actor, I'd want to write about these actors, because Erez Drigues and Iftach Jeffrey Ophir were superb. Comic timing to die for, they raced like thoroughbreds through the one act play with aplomb and style. But I am a playwright, so as much as I admired these young men, I wanted, no, needed to meet the writer. I wanted to buy him coffee, dinner, drinks, and to talk to him for hours about his work. That turned out to be impossible.
Turns out this astounding piece of theater was written in Hebrew by a writer who knows very little English. I know this because, when we met in the hallway, the actors had to translate for him. Actor Iftach Jeffrey Ophir translated the play into perfectly lovely English, so that no one in the audience would ever suspect this was a work in translation. And wait, it gets even better!
Turns out this genius writer isn't on anybody's radar. That's not because he's some child prodigy. He appeared to be at least in his mid-forties when I met him after the play. He doesn't teach playwriting at a university, he's not a professional writer, he's not even in the theater. He's a psychologist who works with children. He writes plays, and has recently finished a children's book.
The young Israeli theater company that brought his play to the Edinburgh Fringe, Repertory Theater, does not have a website in English. Their press release fails to credit a director. The playwright doesn't have a standard writing resume; I had to wait for two days for the Israeli actors to get somebody to translate their playwright's "resume," which turned out to be a narrative of the story of this man's life. I still don't know how many plays he has actually written, how many have been produced, how many are full-length plays.
So how does genius Israeli playwright Eldad Cohen describe himself? Here is the translation I waited two days to get. This is the part of the "resume" that sounds most like a resume:
I published two books in Yedioth Ahronot (a big Israeli publication). The first book, Look at Me, won the Israel's Ministry of Educations debut award. The books were wildly popular especially amongst theatre buffs frequently using my writings for monologues, competitions, auditions and drama school examinations.
Two stage adaptations of my books encouraged me to continue writing especially for theatre. Sketch shows, short plays and first place in The Haifa International Theatre Festival for Children and Youth in 2004 both for best playwright and best play. Three months ago I published my first children's book that has already been adapted to the stage and just recently began its run.
None of this explains the sheer virtuosity of the writing of the misnomered play, The Elephant and the Mouse. Who could guess from this title that the play may very well be the most elegant comic riff on Hamlet since Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead? Hamlet's a play I know inside and out, and so does Eldad Cohen. There are tropes from Hamlet reflected back as if in a fun-house mirror, echoes and remnants and tracings of not only the plot, but of the subtext of the characters, in wholly surprising ways. There is not a cliché in sight in the entire script, itself an achievement when using Shakespeare as source material.
I am still smiling, thinking back on the short time I spent in Eldad Cohen's theatrical universe. I hope you all get a chance to see his work, and that some translator finds a better title for this smashing piece of mayhem. I'd like to congratulate the director, whoever he or she is! I'm going to do my best to connect Eldad Cohen to a publisher in the United States. No matter what happens to my own Fringe play, I am thrilled to have discovered this voice. I hope the Edinburgh Fringe gives him and his young theater friends the recognition they all deserve. More importantly, his work should be coming soon to a theater near you, so you will get a chance to smile like an idiot afterwards, too.