Bringing a Miniature Jerusalem to Palestinians Longing to See It

After a show one day in the West Bank city of Jericho, Abd El Salam Abdo caught a five-year-old running her fingers over the fragile scenery of his toy theater piece. "I love it," she said, explaining why she couldn't keep her hands off the colorful paper cutouts representing Jerusalem. Though she lives only a 30-minute drive away from the real-life stones of the Old City, this Palestinian girl isn't likely to see their golden glow any time soon. "So," says Abdo, speaking in Arabic through an interpreter, "I felt obligated to take Jerusalem to her. This is the essence of the show: If you can't come, we will."

Most of us holding American passports can make the journey to the Old City more easily than a resident of Jericho, but in bringing the Palestinian National Theater's charming and wistful Jerusalem and the Little Prince to the International Toy Theater Festival (greatsmallworks.org), running from June 10 to 19 at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, Abdo is delivering something special to us as well: the alluring city as a child dreams of it.

Combining beautiful illustrations, live music, and a plaintive tale of a boy's search for belonging and friendship, Jerusalem and the Little Prince fuses two theatrical traditions—the Middle Eastern storyteller carrying what Abdo calls his "box of strange things" and the toy theater form that was all the rage in Victorian parlors, a do-it-yourself mode of miniature spectacle.

Welcome to the Old City, courtesy of the Palestinian National Theater
image: Palestinian National Theatre
Welcome to the Old City, courtesy of the Palestinian National Theater

The easy portability of toy theater has its advantages for artists likely to encounter military checkpoints on their way to a gig, but the genre is tantalizing to Abdo and colleagues from all over the world for other reasons too. "Unlike that contemporary box that sits in most people's living rooms, toy theater lets you refashion existing images and interpret the world as you see it," says John Bell, a member of Great Small Works, the collective that curates the festival. This year's—the seventh—features a symposium, museum, and hands-on workshop, along with some 30 performances addressing such themes as Jewish life in a Polish town, the tales of St. Francis, the Haymarket Riots, the story of Christine Jorgensen, and the journey of an adventurous sardine.

As Abdo sees it, "Far away from the story that our lives are all about gunshots and stone throwing, we show the life that is possible in Jerusalem, the Jerusalem we love."


From a kiboshed all-female revival of Grease to a satiric musical

The lyrics aren't exactly Sondheim—"We're Rock and Roll High School and at a sorority we will scoff/And we're really really really really really really really really pissed off"—but Madi Distefano, co-author and director of Grease and Desist, which ended a brief and sudden run in Philadelphia at the end of May, is pleased enough with the last-minute musical that very well could have saved Tapestry Theatre and Brat Productions from a costly lawsuit.

Distefano and colleagues spent two days concocting a plot and new songs to match the costumes, blocking, and choreography they'd rehearsed for a production of Grease that was served a cease and desist order from Samuel French, the script's licensing agent, the day before the scheduled opening early last month. The offense? An all-female cast. According to Distefano, Samuel French regarded women playing men's roles as an unauthorized alteration of the play. (Samuel French did not return calls requesting comment.)

All-girl high schools often perform popular musicals like Grease without any interference, but with adult professionals in the roles of biceps-flexing, car-revving, girl-lusting teenagers, the publishers, says Distefano, assumed she was imposing "lesbian and political overtones, which we totally weren't. It's just that Philadelphia has an awesome female non-Equity talent pool that can sing and dance, and I wanted to do something with them."

Distefano says she regrets that the company didn't get to perform the "fabulous production" they'd prepared. She did learn a lesson, though: "When you have 20 minutes to write a song, repetition really helps."


A downtown institution at long last enjoys the fruits of home ownership

After a dozen years on Sixth Avenue below Spring Street, where it has presented some 11,000 artists for more than 850,000 patrons, HERE Arts Center has purchased its 9,000-square-foot space. Watching so much of Soho get taken over by big companies like the Gap, French Connection, and Starbucks, while so many local businesses have been getting priced out, has made it essential that "HERE put down permanent roots and guarantee artists a place to keep creating risky work," says artistic director and co-founder Kristin Marting. With a 28 percent down payment and bridge financing from a foundation of donor-advised funds, HERE closed the $1.7 million deal on May 10. To pay off the balance, renovate, retire debt, and maintain a reserve fund, HERE still needs to raise nearly $2 million. But in the end, Marting notes, "owning the space is actually cheaper than renting, so that means HERE will have more money to go to artists."

 
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