Demons, dead emperors, fake emperors, the elusive quality of truth and the evanescence of life with all its pleasures – the Khan Theatre’s production of Nissim Aloni’s play Napoleon – Dead or Alive, directed by Udi Ben-Moshe shines with vivid characters, clever dialogue, captivating movement, songs, and excellent performances. Truly phenomenal performances as cast members take on several roles with élan, and perform musical numbers to boot. The fast-paced play is delightfully entertaining, yet it is also a play that grapples with issues of identity, ambition, desire, missed opportunities, illusions, loss, and death. It’s an impressive balancing act, in which Udi Ben-Moshe and his terrific cast prove to be brilliant acrobats.
The premise is alluring and surreal. Napoleon (Erez Shafrir), long dead, is desperate to return to the land of the living to rewrite history and correct his one major error: the invasion of Russia. Somehow, he succeeds in escaping back to the 19th century. Baron Samedi (Arie Tcherner) and Lilit (Nili Rogel), high level managers in the underworld, must now endeavor to bring him back. Here the plot thickens. Pantalone (Yehoyachin Friedlander), a grieving father who has lost three sons to Napoleon’s wars, is intent on revenge, hiring an assassin, Don Brigela (Yossi Eini) to kill Napoleon, offering in return his daughter’s (Natalie Eliezerov) hand in marriage. Napoleon, that is Dead Napoleon, follows Brigela, hoping the hitman will lead him to Napoleon before the latter invades Russia. Samedi and Lilit, for their part, not only follow the action, but have dispersed a proliferation of fake Napoleons throughout Europe to confuse matters. It sounds complicated, but plays out so vividly onstage that one simply and eagerly follows the plot and antics of all 40 (if I counted correctly) characters as the various Napoleons make their way through Europe.
Nissim Aloni’s text is pure pleasure: drama, music, and stand-up all in one. Poetic, symbolic, and clever, he describes a surreal world that is uncannily reminiscent of our own, in its cruel, poignant, and absurdly funny moments. The current version (Aloni himself was known for endlessly revising his plays) has been edited by Udi Ben-Moshe, and has wonderful flow. The epic proportions of the plot are made accessible in part by the characters of Zani (Nir Ron) and Zambolini (Itai Szor). Attired in a top hat and red jacket, Circus Manager Zani with his fantastically expressive demeanor helps situate the action in geography and time, as his circus travels to the different locations, altering its character with the passage of time. Contributing to the many layers of meaning within the play, Zani and other characters – Pantalone, Brigela and the Pulcinellas, evoke the familiar archetypes of the Commedia dell’arte. Yet they are distanced from the originals, Pantalone is no longer the wealthy, greedy master, he is a bereaved father, half-mad with grief and the desire for revenge.
Erez Shafrir is marvelous as the Dead Napoleon, passionate, imperious, all ego, and utterly comical. Arie Tcherner conveys a wonderful ambivalence in his role as high-level manager in the underworld – he’s the one who calls the shots, but he’s also hankering to get back in the good graces of his ex, the sexy Lilit, and ultimately, like the rest, taking his orders from above. One of my favorite moments in the play is his performance of the song that says it all – “What is a man without a demon/what is a demon without a man.” Yehoyachin Friedlander is the very embodiment of crazed rage, and touches the heart as Pantalone experiences one disappointment after another. The duet between Pantalone and his daughter Adelaide is simply beautiful. Yossi Eini makes a very cool Brigela the hitman, and then gives more, and goes even deeper. The chorus of demons in their raggedy black finery are delightful, the lovely Pulcinellas full of sparkle and zest.
The costumes by Judit Aharon are so distinctive, intricate and colorful, expressing the characters so well. The set design by Anat Mesner, is minimal, yet remarkably effective. At times the stage is bare, at other times, full of surprises, and Roni Cohen’s lighting effectively sets the mood and tone for different scenes. Lovely music (composed primarily by Keren Peles, with one song by Gary Bertini) and songs throughout, with live music accompanying the performance, Music Director Ohad Ben-Avi on keyboards and Noa Golandsky on percussion. Ariel Wolf’s choreography shimmered with playful insouciance and panache. A wonderful encounter with the theatre of Nissim Aloni.
Napoleon – Dead or Alive!
By Nissim Aloni, Edited and directed by Udi Ben Moshe; Music: Keren Peles, Gary Bertini; Set Design Assistant: Anat Mesner; Costume Design: Judit Aharon; Lighting Design: Roni Cohen; Music Director, arrangements and keyboards: Ohad Ben-Avi; Choreography: Ariel Wolf; Voice Training: Rebecca Bogatin; Co-director: Anna Baniel; Percussionist: Noa Golandsky.