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undercurrents festival: Marathon delivers less than it promises

By Brian Carroll on February 18, 2015

As the undercurrents staff lets the audience into the Studio outside Arts Court Theatre, Marathon is already in progress. The audience seats itself around three runners who are circling the space. On the floor is a marker for the finish line of a marathon: 42.2 kilometres.

But this is not merely a run, an athletic event. In this dance/theatre piece, the performers intersperse disparate icons of Israeli life: Hora, the celebratory folk dance; Hassidic prayer; shunning of shiksas (non-Jewish women); grenade attacks; Kibbutz communes; national service (“follow me”, “hold the line”, “stick together”); remembrance.

Some references are more obscure to casual observers. For instance, an iconic gesture is called “upright”. Is this a reference to the Book of Ruth? Although Ruth had neither a Jewish mother nor father, she entered ideal Israel because of her faith. She was called an “upright one” or a “law-upholding one”.

As the performance progresses (the program insists that this is not a play) the three performers tell autobiographical stories. Ilya Domanov is a Russian immigrant, father of a young son, and former Russian soldier. Merrill Dagan is a dancer who avoided national service and is a niece of an Israeli war casualty. Gal Shamal is a former Kibbutz member and former Israeli soldier.

While the performance is 80 minutes of gruelling physical theatre, the actual running is a metaphor for Israeli lifestyle. The characters “run” because they “must finish what they started”. They are professionals. To stop would be unprofessional. It is their job.

Their jobs build and maintain Israeli society. So each “marathon” of their life is followed by another. Their task is Sisyphean… never ending.

The gruelling pace and effort takes its toll on the participants. Wounds of Israeli society open in these stories. Each participant comes to a crisis of faith … faith in their place in Israeli society.

Much of the performance matches the description in the program: Sisyphean, metaphor, autobiographical, constant sense of emergency, questions of individual and social identity.

But does the company succeed?

There were technical difficulties with sound on opening night. Although all three performers have face mics, heavy breathing from physical exertion often rendered diction unclear. It took several attempts to understand the word “grenade” for example.

The program describes “a journey into the depths of Israelness”. How are we, the Canadian audience, to judge?

Furthermore, the program refers to “subconscious elements in Israeli society and mentality”. We can understand that “a constant sense of emergency” drills down into the subconscious. But is a “desperate holding onto ideas and ideals” really subconscious?

As “wounds of Israeli society open up” during the performance, what does it mean to say that that society’s “default options become apparent”? What indeed is meant by “default options”? And why do other options not become apparent?

Ultimately Marathon delivers less than it promises.

Marathon is presented by undercurrents theatre festival, taking place at Arts Court Studio (2 Daly Ave) until February 21, 2015. This performance is $15 or buy an evening pass for $25. One performance remains:  Wednesday, February 18th at 9:00pm. Click here for a detailed schedule.

Marathon continues at the Chutzpah Festival in Vancouver (February 24-25).