APPLES IN THE DESERT, a powerful Israeli feminist play at Phoenix Theatre

WOMEN’S HOUR ON THE NAIROBI STAGE By margaretta wa gacheru/////Oct,2013 Patriarchy in varying degrees operates all over the world. But from the look of Phoenix Players latest production, Apples in the Desert, by the award-winning Israeli playwright Savyon Liebrecht, Orthodox Jews living in Jerusalem are among the most extreme, authoritarian and dogmatic patriarchs around.

At least that’s the way Joshua Mwai presents Reuven, the austere and autocratic father figure who’s determined to get his ebullient 18 year old daughter Rivka (Mildred Sakina) married off by hook or crook. Even if she doesn’t want to wed an old widower with three sick kids, this hard-headed dad is determined to make his recalcitrant child tow his line. Otherwise, she will shame his name in their narrow-minded orthodox community. But he won’t win. Rivka has already defied her strict dad by secretly finding a dance partner in Dooby (Claude Zatara) when their religious sect doesn’t allow its people to dance. Yet Reuven is effective in controlling his submissive wife Victoria (Esther Mundia), mainly by threatening her with both physical and psychological force, thus striking terror in her heart. It’s a tactic that bullies use and it’s one that has intimated her for years. But not Rivka. Initially, she looks timid and malleable when in fact her mother’s pain has provided her with a powerful incentive to be everything her mother is not. Plus she has an aunt, her mother’s sister Sarah (Melissa Kiplagat) who offers her an alternative role model, namely a (relatively) free-thinking spinster who isn’t easily intimidated or put down by any man. She’s genuinely happy to not be married, and while she still dresses like an orthodox woman and retains certain conservative values, she’s a libertarian by contrast to Victoria. Sarah has always encouraged Rivka to be strong, to have a mind of her own, and to not be bullied by her father. This hasn’t made her popular with Reuven, who’d like to ban Sarah from his home. But as she’s the one light in Victoria’s life, apart from her only child Rivka, Victoria ignores her husband’s rule in this one sphere. When Rivka runs away after her father insists on marrying her off, irrespective of her wish, he’s so bitter he threatens to kill her, and Mwai makes you believe he really will. When he finds out where she’s gone, having browbeaten Sarah who surprisingly gives away her niece’s secret, the suspense is intense. Is he out to kill her daughter or what? Fortunately, Sarah gets to Rivka before the old man (who’s wearing the wrong kind of Hasidic hat) does. She may be shocked to find her living with Dooby in a kibbutz, but her love for her niece supersedes her orthodox upbringing. It’s also mother-love that compels Victoria to get out from under her husband’s thumb and find her daughter. I won’t give away the climax of the play since the suspense leading up to Reuven’s also going to find his child is killing (be it literally or figuratively speaking). Besides, the ending has been criticised by some Western critics who claim it’s unrealistic. I disagree but you have to go see Apples in the Desert yourself to find out how Liebrecht resolves the problem of patriarchy in the lives of these three Israeli women. One thing that makes Apples in the Desert such an inspiring play is the ensemble work directed by Lydia Gitachu since all the actors are strong and self assured in their respective roles. However, it’s the performance of Melissa Kiplagat as Aunt Sarah that i especially enjoyed since her role was truly life saving and this new-comer to the Kenyan stage presented Sarah with a warmth, realism and strength that was truly touching. The show runs a couple more weeks. Tonight another newcomer to the Kenyan stage, Nathalie vairac, gives the premiere performance of John Sibi-Okumu’s brand new play entitled Elements. Kenya’s leading playwright says he scripted Elements especially for Natalie who’s been performing professionally in London and Paris among other theatre capitals for many years. It’s a monologue, and one that is bound to be spell-binding as it explores a wide range of tabooed topics that some audiences may find a bit too daring to discuss, but one will need to see it how sensitively the writer and his new muse explore provocative social territory.


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