When is the last time you saw a play with a blind actor? What about a deaf-blind actor? How about an entire cast of deaf-blind actors maneuvering the stage with precision and poise as they dance and act -- and bake bread? That's the premise of Not By Bread Alone, a one-of-a-kind performance by actors from the Nalaga'at Theater, a Tel Aviv-based troupe visiting the U.S. for the first time this month. And it all happens in the time it takes for bread to bake onstage.
Not By Bread Alone is a play that grabs the senses, beginning with the sense of touch, and it's immediately clear that these actors are experts with their hands. They are tactile technicians who knead, pull and pound raw dough while they recount vignettes about their lives with a mix of sign language and spoken Hebrew transposed in offstage supertitles. To watch the blind rely on touch to grasp the elbow of another actor, to find the edge of a table, or to make their way across the stage is a mesmerizing thing to witness.
I have to confess that my mind wandered during the play, which made me feel a bit self-conscious at the time. But I'm certain I wasn't alone. What is it like to see the world without sight and make sense of it without hearing? Most plays communicate by entertaining. Not By Bread Alone is entertainment about the nature of communication itself, an anxious tour of a mysterious land.
Three cast members speak Hebrew, but most of the language is presented in sign or supertitles, both of which can be challenging, even disruptive, to what we know as the theater-going experience. I found myself turning my head to read the supertitles (located on each side of the stage and above), sneaking a look at other members of the audience, and then turning back to the stage to catch the action. Whether the director intended this head-swinging exercise is anyone's guess, but it had the effect of frustrating the senses, a difficult but satisfying escape from our comfort zone.
The play is not intended as a "feel-good" story, but the actors' narratives are both heart-wrenching and humorous at different turns. In one of my favorite scenes, a male actor is sitting next to a woman playing the keyboard. They're alone, a spotlight isolating the two of them at center stage. As she plays, the man delicately presses the side of his head against the keyboard, as though he were trying to get as close as possible to the music. But there's no telling how much he can hear, if anything. Maybe he can only feel the vibration of the keyboard. He is smiling, but we're left to guess what his experience is really like. Maybe this is the limit of our understanding, as the audience and as people who aren't deaf or blind. The gulf between us at that moment feels as big as any in the world. It's a powerful moment in the play that is still lingering in my mind several days later.
The aroma of baking bread signals that the play is coming to an end. The smell is a sensory experience that bonds the audience to the actors. We all smell the smoke and feel the heat. Our mouths are watering. It's time to eat. The actors take their bows and the audience is invited to the stage. We mingle, breaking bread.
After this weekend's final four shows, the troupe will return to Tel Aviv. Their tour continues, but my mind will still be wandering.
Not By Bread Alone made its U.S. premiere this month at NYU's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. It plays through Sunday, February 3. For more information, go here.