American audiences have probably never heard Hamlet's classic "To be or not to be" soliloquy performed in Hebrew.
But they'll have that unique chance next year when Israel's prestigious theater company, the Cameri, performs William Shakespeare's classic tragedy as part of the Shakespeare in Washington festival in Washington, DC.
The legendary Tel Aviv theater company has been going strong for 60 years.
"Whether via William Shakespeare or Henrik Ibsen or Hanoch Levin, the theater deals - in Hebrew - with human experience, social issues, and political dilemmas," Omri Nitzan, artistic director of the company told Israel21c. "The Cameri is a mirror in front of our society."
Its latest production of Hamlet has garnered acclaim around the world on previous excursions overseas.
According to a review in Plays International magazine, "Hamlet at the Cameri Theater is undoubtedly the best thing the Israeli theater
When the troupe traveled to Poland last August to perform in the Gdansk Shakespeare Festival, Polish Radio reported that "theaters from all over the world (came to the festival). The festival's most important event is Hamlet from Israel."
Polish film and theater director Andrzej Wajda raved that "the leading role is played by the talented and handsome Itay Tiran, who surely has an international career in front of him. If this production is taken to the United States, Tiran possibly won't be going back to Tel Aviv."
Nitzan, who directed Hamlet, is defying that prediction by bringing the 26-year-old Tiran (who has been called the James Dean of Israeli theater) to the U.S. for seven performances at the Washington festival - and planning to return with their star in tow.
No Hollywood aspirations
For his part, Tiran says he's not looking to jump ship. "I accept the compliments but I immediately remind myself that I do a very simple job; I entertain. I can't get up on stage and say 'I got such and such a compliment,'" he said. "I'm not looking for Hollywood. There are a lot of opportunities here in Israel."
Tiran was first bitten with the theater bug after seeing Kenneth Branagh in Hamlet. However, after he himself prepared to play one of the most challenging characters in the world of drama, he came to the realization that Branagh's performance was lacking, and promised himself he'd work to do better.
The role of Ophelia is a coveted part among women actors, and Netta Garti is not oblivious to its magnitude.
"I was thrilled when I heard I got the part. It's a great role," said Garti, who completed one year at the Lee Strasburg Theater Institute in New York and three years at the local Nisan Nativ theater school. Garti garnered great reviews for her portrayal of Ophelia.
She "matches (Itay) Tiran's Hamlet with a harrowing study of equal power," wrote Jerusalem Post theater critic Naomi Doudai.
The Cameri is thrilled that American audiences will be able to see the theater troupe at its best.
"Theater is about sharing an experience," Nitzan told Isreal 21c. "Through theater you can recognize and meet the society that it's born in, the temperament, the themes, the energy, the view, how things are looked at politically, humanly. Shakespeare is a good meeting point for such an encounter. It's like a diamond - it depends how you look at it. In each angle it reflects different light, different meaning."
Under Semel and Nitzan's management, the Cameri has earned international acclaim as one of Israel's most vibrant theater companies.
"One of the Cameri's ideologies is to bring Israeli theater to places it doesn't exist," Semel said. "Theater people are like goodwill ambassadors."
International festivals, award-winning performances
Over the years, the Cameri Theater has performed at Vienna's Burg Theater, Weimar's National Theater, Budapest's Vigszinhaz Theater, Greece's National Theater in Athens, and the Kennedy Center in Washington. The company has represented Israel at festivals in Edinburgh, Moscow, Buenos Aires, Beijing, Bonn, Parma, Gdansk, and Hanover.
The group's productions have ranged from contemporary works dealing with the country's social, moral and political troubles to classical plays whose themes still resonate in the present day. Like all theaters in Israel today, it also has light entertainment productions on its bill including this month's production of the Hebrew version of the popular musical, The Producers.
The Cameri has won numerous awards during its career. At the Israeli national theater awards, the company pocketed best production honors more than a dozen times, as well as winning many of the coveted awards for its directing, acting, producing and playwriting. Last year the company was also honored with the Israel Prize.
"The 60-year-old Cameri Theater is a young, involved, responsive, socially-oriented theater that is attentive to the reality in which we live and responds to current needs," wrote the committee in its decision to award the 2005 Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement and Special Contribution to Society and the State of Israel to the Cameri.
The company has an annual audience of 830,000, including 33,000 subscribers. It produces eight-to-ten original plays yearly, and stages15-20 works every year. It employs some 300 people, including 70 actors, and its annual budget exceeds USD 13 million.
And though all of its works are in Hebrew, Nitzan says the language of the theater translates internationally.
"Our Hamlet is a very Israeli Hamlet from the language to its energy," Nitzan said. "As soon as local theater is authentic in its place, it has an opportunity abroad. If you look at Kurosawa's films for example, they are very local and very Japanese. When they retain their identity and if they're excellent, they have a chance abroad. Our Hamlet is honest and genuine. It crosses the barrier of language."
Reprinted with permission from Israel 21c