As soon as you step off the street and into the theater for a performance of Odd Birdz, you’re welcomed into the whimsical universe of the Israeli theater company Tziporela: a man playing guitar greets you, another shakes your hand, a third asks if you’d like a glass of water. The actors are the exuberant hosts, the audience members their guests. The fourth wall feels permeable in an intimate, Israeli way.
How to describe Odd Birdz? It’s a live theater show consisting of a series of twenty sketches performed by a cast of eight, but also a world unto itself—a surreal, hilarious world where French janitors perform Shakespeare with Jamaican accents, a real-life Pac-Man takes the stage, and a couple on a first date tell the truth about their sexual proclivities and personal grooming habits. The actors met twelve years ago as students at the Nissan Nativ Acting Studio, and last year the troupe was named one of 20 innovative start-ups by EISP, a non-profit Israeli incubator run by the 8200 Alumni Association (an intelligence unit in the Israeli army). Their performances, though carefully scripted, have a improvisational feel, combining drama, dance, mime, and music.
Language is never an issue, as most of the sketches are performed in English. But when Hebrew is incorporated—and it often is—translation becomes a comedic device. In one scene, two actors act as “translators” for two Israeli soap opera characters. As the couple spews melodramatic romantic clichés in Hebrew, the two translators interpret everything from their words and hand gestures to their cigarette puffs. When the dialogue escalates out of control, all one of the translators can say in the midst of the chaos is “lots of emotions”! The drama eventually engulfs the translators, who, it turns out, are having an affair themselves. A more melodramatic story line unfolds involving cheating partners and a pregnancy. At a certain point in this topsy-turvy scene, the actors start to feed lines to the translators. It’s a balagan, but controlled, well-executed one.
Basically, there are no rules in world of Odd Birdz. This self-proclaimed “start-up theater for the start-up nation” is unorthodox, irreverent, playful entertainment—with a serious, provocative side. One of the most absurd scenarios arises when a Jewish-American tourist entering Israel is scrutinized as a security threat (it quickly unravels into a camp disco dance set). There’s no shortage of sexual innuendo or make-out scenes throughout the performance.
Some of the sketches are physical comedies full of ingenuity and invention. In one skit, a couple silently expresses the ups and downs of their relationship by drawing on each other’s t-shirts with sharpies, sketching out a narrative of love and despair. It’s beautiful.
In another standout scene, a husband and wife seated in the audience argue over whether or not they should publicly identify themselves as Israeli. In a heavy accent somewhere between Russian and Israeli, the husband tells the audience that they’re from Oklahoma. His wife Devoraleh (“It means little bee in Hebrew!”) won’t stand for it. She storms down the aisle, enraged. Somewhere along the way she rants about a divorce, exalts herself as an “educator,” spots a former pupil in the audience (apparently she gets recognized everywhere—everywhere being Hamburg and New York) and berates her husband, again and again.
The act succeeds on many levels: it pokes fun at Israeli and Jewish stereotypes, and the habits of people in long-term relationships. But above all, you feel as though you’re in on the joke. This is a couple you know—just on speed and in technicolor.
Odd Birdz is theater that defies categorization. It’s chaotic, it’s warm, it’s exuberant—a cross between your family seder and the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. But this humor has an edge. It forces you to reflect inwards, to think about your own flaws, prejudices, and vanities. Like all good jesters, the Tziporela troupe reminds us that we don’t have to be serious to be perceptive, that sometimes it’s harder to be light than to be heavy, that there’s wisdom wrapped up in satire. Go to be charmed, and to be challenged.
“Odd Birdz” will be showing through November 19 in New York City. Times and tickets here.
Iris Mansour has written for Reuters, The Guardian, and Time Out, among others. In 2011 she traveled from London to the U.S. in search of her American dreams and became prom queen. Now she’s a New Yorker. Follow her on Twitter @irisist.