The puppet at the center of Zvi Sahar’s “Salt of the Earth” is made out of an Israeli combat bag from the 1967 war. Sahar thought that he might make the figure out of stone or olive wood, but when he saw the bag at a Jaffa flea market, he liked it immediately.
“It’s old and starting to crumble; it still has the DNA of a fighter,” he tells The Jewish Week, just before a rehearsal at BAM. He shows where the anonymous soldier kept track of his days, writing the day of the war, the date and the village where he may have slept or passed through. But at the fifth day, the list ends. Sahar doesn’t know what happened to the soldier — he likes to think that he was called home for a birth or some other occasion — but the bag well suits the faceless and nameless narrator of his story, based on Amos Kenan’s 1984 bestselling novel, “The Road to Ein Harod.”
Sahar, an actor, director and puppeteer, is artistic director of PuppetCinema, an Israeli-American company. This is the American premiere of “Salt of the Earth,” which has played in Hebrew in Israel, and it is also Sahar’s debut at BAM.
The live performance combines puppetry, music, voice and filmmaking — a film is being made as it is projected onto a large screen at the front of the theater — to creative and dramatic effect. Here, there is no backstage: Everything that goes on to create the show is visible. While the performers are manipulating the puppet hero onstage, a camera is recording the scene. So the viewer can see the action on the stage as well as the more perfect version — without the puppeteers in view — on screen. It’s a kind of double vision. The puppet is manipulated by one or two performers who infuse it with life, in a style Sahar calls a hybrid of traditional Japanese Bunraku puppetry, in which each puppet is handled by three performers. Sahar is the voice of the narrator, a former soldier trying to reach Kibbutz Ein Harod.
When Sahar’s wife brought him a copy of Kenan’s novel a few years ago, he knew that he wanted to adapt it. The story describes a military coup in Israel, with the protagonist trying to make his way from Tel Aviv, under siege, to Ein Harod, thought to be the last free refuge and, still, some sort of Utopia. Along the violent, sometimes dreamlike trail he meets others — a woman, a military commander, a general, an Arab named Mahmoud, and Liora, a young woman from the kibbutz. The others appear in shadow, silhouette, or as fragments, or, in the case of Liora, as reflection on water.
“The book is a masterpiece,” Sahar says of “The Road to Ein Harod.” “Kenan really caught the essence of Israel and the nation.” He explains that the “Salt of the Earth” is not a political play due to its specific references, but “a political play in a very deep sense.” At one point, the narrator says, “And here I am, fleeing from my country toward my country.”
Kenan was born in Tel Aviv in 1927, served in the 1948 War of Independence and soon after that became a peace activist. He moved to Paris for a bit and worked as a sculptor; he returned to Israel in the 1960s and worked as a journalist and satirist. His daughter Rona, a singer and songwriter, provided some of the musical material used in the production. She sings an old Hebrew folk song, “Night Silence,” referenced in the novel, which becomes the theme song.
Sahar and members of the production team visited Kibbutz Ein Harod and spent nights walking — following the character’s trail — and writing the adaptation.
In every performance of “Salt of the Earth,” the sets on which the actions take place are built and then destroyed, before the audience. Like the Buddhist monks who create intricate and beautiful designs from grains of sand and then, as they finish them, destroy them, the performers on the BAM stage form desert landscapes and then replace them with urban streets and then other scenes. They work not with sand, but salt — 1,000 pounds of the white grains — and use special brooms to move the piles of industrial-grade salt around.
When I visited the theater before a rehearsal, the salt was stored along the sides of the black stage in five-gallon white buckets. The miniature trees, benches, buildings and cars that will fill the landscapes are also inside the buckets, and will convey the tragic cycle of war. The salt intensifies the wounds and also has powers of healing.
As she describes the many layers of the production, Leslie Strongwater, U.S. producer of PuppetCinema, notes that it is technically complex, “but our whole philosophy is storytelling, simple.” She says that the film, being shot in the moment, “is like a live movie without the record button being pressed.”
“It’s risky,” Sahar adds. “Each time it’s a bit different.”
“I try to use the best of each genre,” he says. “The cinema can give us a beautiful closeup. The puppet can be strong and vulnerable on stage.
“Puppets can tell the stories in a better way sometimes from what we can do. They’re made of material, and we don’t see ourselves as material,” he says. “With a puppet, you have a bit of distance from the character. You can load it with everything you have.”
In an interview, Michael Vaknin and Yuval Fingerman, who manipulate the narrator puppet, with each controlling a different side, speak of the need to synchronize their efforts. “We have to bring the feeling of the text to him,” Vaknin says. To watch them up close-up in rehearsal — to see the narrator crawl painfully along the floor — is to witness uncommon choreography.
During his IDF service, Sahar was a tour guide in Jerusalem, guiding soldiers through the Old City’s streets and centuries of history. After working full-time as an actor in prominent Israeli theater for about seven years, he realized that he wanted to be responsible for more than just the part he was playing. He came to New York City and worked at St. Ann’s Warehouse and found the puppetry community very welcoming. He founded PuppetCinema in Israel in 2009.
“The only thing that really stays here is the earth and the salt,” he says, adding that the salt eats away at their props.
He thinks of the performance as optimistic, but declines to say more about the meaning. “If I was a message artist, I would have Facebooked,” he says. “I’m giving you an experience.”
“Salt of the Earth,” part of BAM’s Next Wave Festival, plays at BAM’s Fisher Hall, 321 Ashland St., Brooklyn, through Saturday, Nov. 1. Bam.org. $20.