It would be hard to get any further from orientalist stereotypes and the “exotic East” than the work of avant-garde Romanian playwright Eugene Ionescu (1909-1994). Ionescu, who was awarded many of the most significant awards of the Western literary and theatrical worlds, wrote sparse, cutting plays which dealt with the most banal of human experiences.
His Foursome (1959) is one of the experimental and avant-garde pieces tackled by the magnificently talented Palestinian theater group Khashabi Ensemble, based in Haifa, a major city in present-day Israel. Founded in 2011, the artists say they want to “challenge the traditional forms of art in the community.”
In a bid to present their work to audiences well beyond their native city, Khashabi have made a number of their short plays available online and with English subtitles.
In another of his avant-garde works, actress Shaden Kanboura expertly contrasts Ionescu’s freakishly quotidian script — which consists of minutely detailed instructions on how to boil and eat an egg — with a performance which descends into a kind of hysterical madness.
In Exit, a longer piece with more complex staging, we see the ensemble using their own improvisation to create a claustrophobic, disturbing play in which characters try to leave a closed space, in some cases crashing into blank walls in an effort to escape. There are countless possible social and political interpretations of the work, many of them relating to the situation of Palestinian youth in Israel.
With minimalist but sophisticated and well-executed staging and backing music, Khashabi’s works are a prime example of the breadth of performance art being explored by Palestinian actors. They are also excellent demonstrations of how small theater groups can use online videos to widen their reach and to bring together film and cutting-edge theater in ways which exploit the potentials of both art forms.