Though translated to English and adapted to make sense to local audiences, the plays featured by the North American branch of the Aspaklaria Jewish Repertory Theatre Company portray characters that feel somehow Israeli.
“Our actors will tell me that Canadian theatre characters don’t behave or respond the way ours do. There’s something about the Middle Eastern temperament – the directness, the warmth – that comes across strongly in our writing,” said Joseph Fackenheim, 36, artistic director of the Israeli theatre company’s new Canadian iteration, which is based in Toronto.
Aspaklaria was founded in Jerusalem in 2001 by Rabbi Hagay Lober and given repertory status by the Israeli Ministry of Culture, Its mandate is to spread Jewish themes and culture in Israel and internationally.
Nine months ago, Aspaklaria’s new North American branch set up shop in Toronto with an aim to give local audiences – both Jewish and not – an eye into Israeli and Jewish ways of life.
On April 3, Aspaklaria will hold its inaugural event at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, with a reception followed by the Canadian debut performance of the company’s flagship play for the season, The Odds.
Written by Ayelet Scheinberg and Rabbi Lober, The Odds has been running successfully in Israel for the past six years.
It’s a dramatic comedy about a couple’s therapist who decides to hold a workshop exclusively for men to work out their relationship problems.
Three men attend, and the play follows the emotional and humorous journey that unfolds as they work with the therapist to unpack their marital issues.
“A few of the characters are Jewish and their journey is very much inflected by their Jewishness. Overall, I think the outlook on relationships presented in the play is very Jewish,” explained Fackenheim, who himself is one of Aspaklaria’s four company actors, and who plays a part in The Odds.
Currently working and rehearsing out of Fackenheim’s Toronto home, the company has four professional actors – three of whom, including Fackenheim, are Jewish, and one who isn’t – and currently has a repertoire of three plays it’s looking to show first in Toronto and eventually, across North America.
All three – in addition to The Odds, there’s Dead End, which will run in Toronto later this year and Tom – have been adapted from Israeli scripts, and were well-received in Israel, said Fackenheim, who also directs and produces the shows, and did some of the writing adaptation and translation for The Odds.
Aspaklaria’s North American branch has no home theatre venue, but will travel “wherever and whenever we’re booked,” said Fackenheim.
He said that the company’s plays have been “localized” in the sense that a scene that originally took place in Israel’s Zion Square might be changed to, say, Central Park.
Fackenheim stressed that Aspaklaria wants to appeal to diverse audiences and “hold up a new window on Israeli culture so people in North America can see aspects of Israel they wouldn’t otherwise in the media.”
The company hopes to eventually commission and write fresh material here.
Fackenheim, who was born in Canada but largely grew up in Israel, is the son of the late Emil Fackenheim, who was a Reform rabbi in Hamilton and subsequently a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.
“Part of me is Israeli and part of me is Canadian,” he said. “It’s important to me that I know Israel from the inside and am able to present its multifaceted outlook to North American audiences,” Fackenheim said.
Part of what makes Aspaklaria unique is that it was founded by the Orthodox Rabbi Lober, who attended acting school after receiving ordination in order to improve his sermonizing skills.
The company observes Halachah – no performances are held on Shabbat – and the content is, Fackenheim said, “interesting and scintillating without going to places of sex or vulgarity.” This allows them to perform for audiences of any religion.
Further, Fackenheim said, “adherence to certain rules is something that enables us to express ourselves artistically in new and interesting ways. It frees, rather than hinders, us.”
Tickets for The Odds can be found on the Toronto Centre for the Arts website.