Ofra Daniel
Ofra Daniel

‘Love Sick’: Jewish Circle Theatre takes leap with first English play

There is a Hebrew word — mopha — that describes the hybrid performance art of theater, dance, song and live music, says Israeli stage artist Ofra Daniel. It has no exact equivalent in English, the Berkeley-based actor and director says. But that won’t stop her from giving a vivid demonstration of its meaning in her new show, “Love Sick.”

The musical play, which opens Thursday, Jan. 12 in Berkeley and moves to Mountain View in February, is the first English-language production of Jewish Circle Theatre, which Daniel co-founded in 2010 to mine the rich sources of Jewish culture for theatrical expression. The troupe has attracted a wealth of creative talent from the Bay Area’s Israeli community and performed in Hebrew with English supertitles, opening their art to non-Hebrew-speaking audiences as well.

With this new production, Daniel, 41, is reaching beyond words and nationalities with a multicultural, multi-medium spectacle about a universal theme.

“It’s a love story derived from the Song of Songs,” says Daniel. “And the language is music.”

“Love Sick” is Jewish Circle Theatre’s first fully professional production and one that the show’s producer, Bay Area entertainment impresario John Gertz, hopes will catapult Daniel to Broadway and beyond. Britain’s Christopher Renshaw is directing, and Los Angeles-based composer Yuval Ron is the musical director.

“Love Sick” evolved out of a solo performance by Daniel at the East Bay and Addison-Penzak JCCs in 2013. A scheduled performer had canceled and Daniel needed to replace him; she turned for material to an exploration of the Song of Songs that she’d begun a year earlier. The biblical text has no story; it is a collection of love poems attributed to King Solomon but which some scholars believe has roots in the oral traditions of ancient times. Rabbinical lore has interpreted the text as a love poem between the people of Israel and their god, yet the poetry is universally recognized as erotic.

Yuval Ron directs the music. Photo by Michael Fox.
Yuval Ron directs the music in “Love Sick.” (Photo/Michael Fox)

Using the poetry as a point of departure, Daniel began to weave her own connecting story, imagining as a central character a solitary woman unhinged by love.

“When I read the poems, I thought, who are the people who would say these things, why are they so consumed with longing? Either they’re the perfect lovers — Romeo and Juliet — or they are really broken people. That polarity attracted me.”

In a frenzy of inspiration, she composed and recorded the principle songs in a month. She then turned to a fellow Israeli ex-pat in San Francisco, Lior Ben-Hur, to transcribe them for the musicians, and in November 2013 performed her one-woman show.

John Gertz, past-president of the JCC of the East Bay and longtime producer of the Zorro entertainment franchise, was in the audience.

Though Gertz was board president of the Jewish Circle Theatre and had interacted with Daniel as its artistic director, “I had not yet seen Ofra on stage except in an improv piece,” he recalls. “As a professional producer of film, television and musical theater, I was totally shocked by the quality of ‘Love Sick’ when I first saw her perform it. It gave me shivers down my spine. … And that is on top of the quality of the written piece.”

So began the saga of the production’s rise to a full-scale work of musical theater. It took about two years before Gertz could get Renshaw to come and see Daniel’s one-woman version, which she performed for him on the stage of Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom, where her troupe often performs.

Renshaw was reluctant. HJe had directed Gertz’s London premiere production of “Zorro, the Musical” with the Gipsy Kings, gone on a world tour with it, and is acclaimed internationally as a director of opera and musical theater. He is accustomed to working with top-tier talent — and he is not Jewish. But he went as a favor to Gertz.

“I really didn’t know who he was,” Daniel said of Renshaw. But she, too, went along with Gertz’s request and performed a bare-bones version of her work for the two men. When she was done, according to Gertz, Renshaw “was sold.”

He and Daniel “went off together for coffee, and when they came back, they had totally re-envisioned it as the show Bay Area viewers are going to see,” Gertz says.

In December, that show was swiftly coming together at a run-through in Berkeley of its many musical numbers. Renshaw was there, along with the young choreographer he had brought in from London, Matt Cole.

Cole was a principal dancer in the London production of “Zorro” and now choreographs London and New York shows. He will be working with Daniel and a corps of performers that includes a four-woman back-up chorus described as “Women of Jerusalem” (Renshaw’s idea) and a musical ensemble; they will also play dramatic roles as street people who relay the main character’s compelling tragedy.

“The music is Middle Eastern and a bit flamenco and the dance style will be music-driven,” says Cole. “There will be elements of traditional Jewish dances in it too.”

Daniel reached out to Yuval Ron to join the production as music director. Ron, an Israeli, is a world-renowned musician and record producer who has composed music for many films, including the Academy Award–winning comedy musical short “West Bank Story.” Ron’s own L.A.-based performing ensemble focuses on sacred Middle Eastern repertoire and strives to create “musical bridges” between people of different faiths.

As a Sephardic Jew, Daniel wanted Ron specifically for his holistic embrace of the music of the Middle East.

“My mother is from Libya, my father from Iraq,” she says. “The language spoken in my home was Arabic. I grew up with Arabic music — that’s the beat I heard, and it comes through in the songs I wrote.”

She said the music was especially important to this crossover, English-language production.

“Israelis identify with this sound immediately; it is our music, with its Arabic and flamenco influences,” she says. “Music plays to the heart. It crosses barriers.”

Ron orchestrated the songs and put together a diverse ensemble of musicians that includes flamenco guitarist David McLean, Israeli woodwinds virtuoso Asaf Ophir, Syrian percussionist Faisal Zedan of Oakland, and other professional Bay Area artists. Ron also recruited Ali Paris, a Palestinian from Ramallah who sings softly and plays a 72-stringed instrument called the qanun, or Arabic lap harp. Paris, 25, is already playing on world stages with Sting, Alicia Keys and notables in the Arabic music world.

When Daniel, a theater artist in Israel, moved to the Bay Area in 2008, she asked herself what her particular contribution to local theater might be.

“There are so many American actresses and there was such a danger of typecasting,” she said during an interview on a recent Sunday morning break from rehearsals. “Then I realized: it’s my Jewish roots and Israeli culture. That’s it.”

An estimated 50,000 Israelis live in Silicon Valley and the greater Bay Area. Though they tend to do well economically, “It’s a community that needs to build up all the foundations of life in Israel that they are missing here,” Daniel says.

She began offering acting classes out of a friend’s home in Cupertino and was astonished at the response from Israelis who worked in tech and other fields. Soon she was offering a class at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, where she continues to teach.

“I think they are looking for a way to express themselves or find parts of themselves they left back home,” she suggests. “One student in my class who runs a startup told me that it was only when wearing the masks of other identities that he felt he was expressing his authentic self.”

When her core group of amateur actors was ready, Daniel wrote a little play for them to perform at a small theater in the South Bay. “Edges” was advertised strictly by word of mouth.

“Boom: three hundred people showed up,” Daniel recalls. “We didn’t expect that. I thought: That’s interesting. Somebody wants something here.”

At that point, Daniel realized there was a cultural niche begging to be filled and formed the nonprofit Jewish Circle Theatre. Its mission: “To bridge Israeli culture and Jewish heritage.” Daniel made a conscious decision to integrate English and Hebrew in their works to make it accessible to would-be performers and general audiences.

“We are inviting and inclusive to anyone who wants to be in our shows,” she affirms, although a Hebrew-speaking arm of the organization, Bama Ivrit (the Hebrew Stage), still meets and performs in the South Bay. Daniel’s English-language workshop meets at Netivot Shalom. Jewish Circle Theatre’s board of directors includes both Israelis and Americans, including Gertz, its president, who has dual citizenship and has long been active in local mainstream Jewish organizations.

Thanks to the participation of Israelis working in the Bay Area, the troupe has grown consistently, generally performing a play written by Daniel and one by an Israeli playwright each year.

“I found this community of people here who had professions or skills in Israel that they don’t otherwise get to use,” Daniel says. “A graduate of Betsel-El, the academy of visual arts in Jerusalem, designed a set and did our graphics. People stepped up to translate or to engineer sound or run the supertitles. Our motto is: We’ll do whatever is needed, and we’ll do it ourselves, because how else?”

Most of their performances sell out.

“I don’t want us to be a segregated community defined by language, which is an issue for all immigrants,” Daniel explains.

Ilan Vitemberg, director of educational support services at Jewish LearningWorks in San Francisco, holds a degree in theater arts and creates puppet-based shows for students. He says verbal language is important, but that theater has the communicative capacity to transcend it.

“Theater, more than any other art form, holds the possibility of creating a human connection, an emotional connection between the actors and the audience, because it is live and immediate,” Vitemberg says. “What’s going on in the moment allows people to bridge any differences. It happens regardless of what language is spoken.”

As a native Hebrew speaker, seeing plays in Hebrew reaches him deeply. But for Jews who only know the Hebrew of ritual, he says, “Hearing the language used creatively as a modern vehicle of expression may resonate with them. And for anyone — Jewish or not — seeing art and culture performed in Hebrew represents a value in regards to Israel. Whatever you might think or know about the state, Israel is an incredible laboratory for culture.”

“Love Sick,” Thursday, Jan. 12-28 at the Osher Studio, 2055 Center St., Berkeley. Also Feb. 23-March 12 at SecondStage at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. lovesickmusical.com

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is a freelance writer living in Point Richmond.