All of the actors in the ensemble are deaf and blind to varying degrees, mostly as a result of Usher Syndrome, a hereditary disease which suddenly takes away all sound, followed by night blindness and decreasing peripheral vision. It progresses to full blindness by early adulthood—but for most of these actors it was around the age of 10.
As the audience assembles, ten actors are kneading dough and shaping a variety of loaves to the strains of accordion music. Itzik Hanina, the only actor who was born blind, is seated at a braille typewriter, which provides a nice counterpoint to the music
Itzik, who became deaf later due to meningitis, is able to speak, and tells us he likes to read braille and drink coffee. The other actors use Hebrew, Israeli, or Russian sign language, which is translated into Hebrew spoken language with English subtitles projected on the theater wall.
It sounds confusing but it is not, even though they often communicate by speaking for each other, each depending on his ability.
“This is Shoshana Segal. Not having a hand to touch for her creates an obstacle to communication,” explains a fellow actor.
Some of the actors use sign-touch, like Helen Keller learned from her teacher Anne Sullivan, made famous in The Miracle Worker. Others spell braille, composed of six dots like a domino, onto Itzik’s hand with their fingers. If they don’t know braille, they use glove language (each joint on the hand symbolizes a letter).
The acting company is named Nalaga’at, which is Hebrew for “please do touch.” The only ensemble of its kind in the world, it was founded by Adina Tal, an actor/director originally from Switzerland who was asked in to teach a workshop to some disabled people in 2002. It developed into the Tel Aviv-based Nalaga’at Center, which also features a darkened restaurant to focus the taste buds.
Director Tal conceived the show and created it along with the cast over two years of intense communication among not only themselves but a team of eleven helper/interpreters. She avoids sentimentality and the actors let their personalities shine through.
There are themes of love, birth, death and a wedding, complete with the ceremonial Jewish chuppah. The lovers, played by actors Evgenia Shtesky and Yuri Osherov, are talking in touch-sign language that they are feeling with each other’s hands. After Osherov signs her the house he is going to build, with the roof going up and up and up, the helpers bring out a synthesizer and Shtesky, who grew up backstage in Russian theaters, plays a song in return. Osherow feels for vibrations.
In another vignette a mother rocks a baby, a girl swings on a swing, another eats cotton candy, a man walks on stilts wheeling a baby carriage, two lovers dance to “Dancing Closely” written and performed on accordion by Zvi Tal. It is a charming tableaux of some of the joys of life.
A third sketch tells the true story of a young actor in the throes of hearing and vision loss who sought them out from Italy but died before he could take the stage. As staged, it is a celebration of his life.
The players also let you get to know their lighter sides.
“I am Bat-Sheva [Rabansari]. I like to run around without anyone to help me.” Rabansari starred in a funny sketch in which she gets an appointment with a sought-after hair stylist.
Mark Yaroski loved to watch Charlie Chaplin movies before losing his eyesight, and his own mimes pepper the play delightfully. Igor Osherov is good at clowning and the two pair up in several pieces. Shmuel Haberman mimes juggling and other serious scenarios skilfully, Zipora Malca plays a confident moviegoer, Rafi Akoa makes a great magician and Yuriy Tverdobsky ably fills a variety of roles.
Eleven black-clad translators and interpreters help the players by taking their hands, pacing them on their shoulders, and leading them to their spots on the stage, and translating into or out of sign language. Nadejda Vaseva, Mordechai Eliyahu Messeca, Yoav Chorev, Lolita Mirson, Orya Tal, Rani Gilon, Noam Havkin, Mahmoud Ebn Bari, Tomer Levin, Li Meidan and Talal Alziadna had to familiarize themselves with darkness, silence and isolation as part of their training to be part of this complex production.
Music by Amnon Baaham features accordion and guitar. Set design by Eithan Ronel included three working ovens. Costumes by Dafna Grossman, lights by Ori Rubinstein and props by Liron Koren taken together create the effect of a large-scale production—like rising dough, the effect gets bigger and bigger.
The show is part of The Kennedy Center’s ongoing World Stages International Theatre Festival, which runs through March 30th. Audience member Louis Delair has been to many of the shows in the festival, which, like Not By Bread Alone, run for only one or two performances.
“Everybody brings their own experience to the theater. So everyone finds the emotional wells, whether it be laughter or tears. It is an amalgam of what you brought in and what the performers shared with you and it becomes a reality in the moment that you experience it,” Delair said.
The Kennedy Center is affiliated with VSA, which provides arts and education for people with disabilities and increases access to the arts for all.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Not by Bread Alone has one more performance tonight, Wednesday, March 26th, at 7:30 p.m. in the Terrace Theater at The Kennedy Center – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.
Read Sydney-Chanele Dawkins’ reviews of shows in the World Stages: International Theater Festival:
Tapioca Inn: Incendios.
Death & the Maiden (La Muerte y La Doncella).
A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Not by Bread Alone.World Stages Festival YouTube Channel.