Fringe theatre is often touched by a sense of tantalizing danger. Audiences walk into the ancient Jaffa Theater to see lead actor Moti Rosenzweig being strapped first into his microphone, then into medical equipment in preparation for a polygraph test. Once the subject and audience are all settled, Samira Sriya, dressed in a retro nurse uniform, asks if any of us faint at the sight of blood…
Well, in that case – enjoy! This elicits some laughter from the audience, both nervous and whole-hearted. Like I said, tantalizing danger.
Schreber consists of a TED-talk-style presentation delivered by Dr. Daniel Paul Schreber. The real Daniel Schreber (1842-1911) was the youngest ever president of the Higher Court of Appeals in Dresden, Germany. However, at the peak of his career, Schreber checked himself into psychiatric care following a psychotic episode; He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. A brilliant, inquisitive, legal mind, Dr. Schreber kept a detailed journal during his time in treatment. In the play, Schreber educates us about his findings while he was institutionalized, discussing his newfound worldview, how he developed it, and how it should be implemented to bring about a harmonious new world order. Rosenzweig’s portrayal of Schreber is poised, level, and charming. I quickly found myself wondering, Isn’t this man mentally ill?
At this moment, the projection screen rises to reveal stark, metallic braces that form a simple demonstration space. Tal Ariel Arviv’s scenic design subtly but clearly ushers us into the inner sanctum of Schreber’s mind. Therein, Schreber’s ensemble bring to life the protagonist’s ideas: a world in which we are all physically connected by a system in which order is communicated through the transfer of energy between figurative rapists and the raped. Demonstrations of these ideas and how to create a new world based on them are brutal, and never rely on theatrical suspension of disbelief. The ensemble is astonishingly committed to carrying out these demonstrations, pushing their bodies to the limit in manners often viscerally disturbing for the audience. Rotem Elroy’s lighting lines Arviv’s set with cold, white, bursts of light that illuminate and expose the action, adding minimal theatricality. Long silences in which Schreber’s demonstrations are prepared, executed, and cleaned create a palpable tension; When Rosenzweig breaks that tension by continuing his charismatic lecture, we can’t quite see him the same way. From the opening polygraph test, creator Ran Bachor encourages his audience to question who is fit to determine the truth. By the ending debate between Schreber and his abusive caretaker Dr. Paul Flechsig (played by Sriya with broad, jaded, intelligence), it seems that no one is.
Schreber is a well-executed example of fringe theatre being equal parts important and frustrating. The play employs starkness and shock value that invoke the theories of Antonin Artaud, who believed in the power of visceral discomfort in theatre to mirror the cruelties of our world. When the ensemble offers up their bodies to serve Schreber’s ideology, Bachor doubts whether our physical sacrifices create the better world promised by our ideals and our leaders who espouse them. To pose these questions in Israel, where citizens often carry out the country’s ideals through mandatory draft or religious orthodoxy, is no small feat. Still, Artaud offered catharsis, whereas Schreber does not. The play lacks the call to action that gives purpose to this questioning, not to mention the physical discomfort of all involved it deems necessary along the way.
However, who am I to determine your truth? I encourage you to head to the Jaffa Theatre next month to experience Schreber’s madness for yourself.