An ambitious and alluring undertaking, The Advocate lives up to the promise of its subtitle: A strange story about a Horse and the Law. The Khan Theatre production, written and directed by Danielle Cohen Levy, was inspired by Franz Kafka’s cryptic and mysterious short piece “The New Advocate.” Taking off from the work’s premise – Bucephalus, the formidable battle horse of Alexander the Great, has become a lawyer – Cohen Levy has developed a theatrical work that explores themes of law and justice, war, difference, prejudice, and the essence of humanity. The emotionally engaging drama is marked by strong performances and creative staging to convey its themes, yet ultimately its intriguing strangeness remains unresolved, the threads of its underlying themes entangled.
The Half Knight inn is a rather gloomy place, in an unnamed ravaged land in difficult times. Its residents have all known havoc and hardship in their lives. There is a Brecht-like feel to the oppressive, omnipresence of war and its impact on people and their relationships. The Landlady (Carmit Mesilati-Kaplan) meets the world with aggression and suspicion, her leg brace and cane indicate that she may well have her reasons. Her son Nicola (Gilad Lederman) is a wide-eyed witness to the turmoil surrounding him, harboring his own dreams and questions. The lovely Beatrice (Natalie Eliezerov) is ambiguous in her reception of officer Even Shore’s (Yossi Eini) amorous attentions, but she does not reject his gifts. Pelles Green (Shimon Mimran) is the resident historian, who enjoys his drink and a good game of chess. Into this scene enters Dr. Bucephalus (David Ben Zeev), former horse and current lawyer, looking for a room.
Tall and imposing in his dark business suit, David Ben Zeev gives a very striking performance as Bucephalus. Embodying the contradictory aspects of a massive and potentially dangerous creature, his demeanor is calm, articulate and exceedingly rational. Often his gaze, tone and movement are marked by an air of bewilderment, conveying the sense that not only does he find the ways of the human world difficult to comprehend, but at the core, he is a stranger to himself. Looking like a man, he insists that he is a horse, a reformed battle horse who cleaves to the law and all it represents.
What does the law represent? An acknowledgement perhaps of the animal nature within us all, that must be restrained by boundaries. It is the framework of the law that prevents us from harming ourselves and others. Bucephalus, in his study of the law, has subdued and tamed the animal within, yet although it is restrained, it persists. Shani Tur’s set design alludes to Bucephalus’s equine origins with back panels whose appearance suggests a barn door. Elements of his costume (designed by Ula Shevtsov) symbolize his situation as well. Yet most evocative is the use of sound, a loud thundering resembling hoofbeats, that is heard when his passions are aroused.
The arrival of Bucephalus inspires different responses among the residents and visitors to the inn. The play works well as a study of difference and prejudice, in its examination of those who are attracted to Bucephalus as well as those who are frightened or repelled. Yet this theme is entwined in another, the issue of the letter of the law as differing at times from justice and the spirit of the law. In its ambitious reach, the play eludes the clarity and cohesion essential to achieving a satisfying resolution.
The play’s progress towards its conclusion feels inevitable, as the lawyer eventually stands before a Judge (Arie Tcherner). In his insistent adherence to the letter of the law, is Bucephalus then marked as different from – less than – human? If that is the message, then perhaps the prejudice against him is, to a certain extent, justified, thus confusing the issue of difference and prejudice which is explored in the play. Furthermore, there is information which makes the judge’s ruling feel contrived and forced (trying to avoid spoilers), thus diminishing any sense of tragic destiny. And yet, within this conceptual confusion, the final scenes play out in a very moving manner, with Itai Szor skillfully walking the tightrope between comic and serious. Then again, the play’s ultimate lines feel abrupt and bewildering. It’s strange.
A strange story about a Horse and the Law
Written and Directed by Danielle Cohen Levy; Set and Design: Shani Tur; Costume Design: Ula Shevtov; Music: Uri Frost; Lighting Design: Roni Cohen; Choreography: Tula Damari; Dramaturgy: Yigael Sachs; Actors: David Ben Zeev – Bucephalus; Carmit Mesilati-Kaplan – Landlady; Shimon Mimran – Pelles Green; Natalie Eliezerov – Beatrice; Amitai Ziv/Gilad Lederman – Nicola; Yossi Eini – Even Shore; Yuval Oron – Soldier A, Prisoner A; Itai Szor – Soldier B, Prisoner B, Cook; Arie Tcherner – Judge.