THE MELBOURNE AGE
and THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
They say every girl turns into her mother: I've watched a number of female friends grow up to find, with a mixture of surprise and chagrin, some truth in that. Boys and their fathers? Not so much.
Actor Brian Lipson and dancer/choreographer Gideon Obarzanek certainly seem to have fallen far from the tree, and Two Jews Walk Into A Theatre explores what might happen if they turned into their dads.
Structured as a series of improvised conversations between the performers as their own fathers, the piece begins with a meta-theatrical reversal. We are to imagine Lipson snr and Obarzanek snr ensconced on chairs in the Arts House foyer, having arrived early for a show in which both of their sons are performing.
The chat that follows rambles into a humorous kvetch-a-thon (no one does the comedy of complaint better than the Jews), taking in everything from the size of the foyer to paternal bafflement at their sons' careers in experimental theatre and contemporary dance.
The affectionate embodiment of their fathers leads to a fair amount of sharp, self-deprecating skewering of their own artistic foibles. It also ignites vehement conflict between conservative and liberal ideologies, over Australia's refugee policy and the fraught geopolitics of Israel.
Illuminating backstory to the Lipson and Obarzanek families emerges: the former assimilated into British life after fleeing murderous Cossacks in a Ukrainian shtetl; the latter escaping annihilation in Poland by moving to Kazakhstan, eventually emigrating to an Israeli kibbutz after the Six Day War.
Memorably black ironies swirl through the family history, like the tale of Obarzanek's paterfamilias – jailed in Poland for being a communist before the war, and jailed for being a capitalist after it.
Pointed questions of Jewish identity mix with more poignant meditations, as they recall their own childhoods, the unbridgeable distance between past and present, and reflect on the changing face of fatherhood over three generations.
If the extemporised format delivers lively comedy and fresh, moving insight, it also secures an unstable performance style, too replete with personal intuition ever to collapse into simple impersonation.
It's a bit like theatre as seance, a sense amplified by a final movement into the existential – a brush with impending death, and whatever afterlife there is.
Director Lucy Guerin seizes the moment to end with a brief contemporary dance duet. Obarzanek may have a more natural facility for acting than Lipson for dance, yet this abstract coda, with its patterns of synchronicity, antithesis and mutual engagement, evoking both purgatory and grace, provides a fitting conclusion.
Review by Jane Howard
A dancer and an actor explore the relationships between performance forms, friends, and fathers and sons – and it isn’t a joke at all.
Two Jews walk into a theatre and make a show about the way theatre is constructed and the way familial relationships are constructed. Two Jews walk into a theatre and it’s a serious meditation on the ways sons see their fathers. Two Jews walk into a theatre and it’s a quiet theatre piece, mostly conversation, with some dance tacked on at the end.
Devised and performed by the experimental theatre maker and performer Brian Lipson, and the choreographer and ex-dancer Gideon Obarzanek (founder and former artistic director of Chunky Move), under the steady eye of director and choreographer Lucy Guerin, Two Jews walk into a theatre … is quite often funny, but it’s never a joke at all.
Lipson and Obarzanek have walked into a theatre: they sit in the foyer of Melbourne’s Malthouse (on stage, with the foyer represented by two of the white pleather chairs that occupy that space) and they talk about the fact that they’ve arrived at the theatre early: about the state of public transport, and the difficulty of finding a car park.
It takes a while for us to realise we are watching not the Lipson and Obarzanek we know, but their fathers sitting in the theatre foyer, about to watch a show performed by their two sons – the two sons we are watching play their fathers on stage right now. But even then, we cannot always be sure whom we are watching: Lipson and Obarzanek play on the line between actor and father: they are sometimes son, sometimes father, sometimes father’s father. These shifts are sometimes quiet, sometimes loud, but always in a moment, always catching us slightly off-guard. We might try and guess whom we are watching by reading the performance score that sits across the front of the stage – thick black texta on a long sheet of butcher’s paper – but this shows us only the work’s construct, not its secrets.
There are acute tensions in each man’s relationship with his father, but they are generous in their portrayal of each patriarch, suggesting that they are products of their generation. The care with which Lipson and Obarzanek embody their parents demonstrates compassion and love, counterbalancing feelings of hurt. And by stepping into their fathers’ shoes, these sons paint a picture of each generation of men learning from the generation that came before it.
While Two Jews is about the relationship between fathers and sons, it is also about the meeting of these two performers, and it is this secondary preoccupation of the work where it often shines brightest: Obarzanek stepping into Lipson’s world of the theatre; Lipson stepping into Obarzanek’s world of contemporary dance.
There is an openness and generosity to the way they share their worlds, and in the meeting in these spaces. They each rise to the challenge of the other’s art form, but you can see the way these men rest on decades of training and immersion. There is an ease to the way Lipson acts as his father: small twitches on his face, the steadying placement of his hand on his calves. There is a liquidity to the way Obarzanek moves through space as he dances, dissolving the boundary between his body and air.
The skills of each man never curtail their partner on stage; the slight stiffness of Obarzanek as an actor, and the slightly rigid angles of Lipson as a dancer, don’t diminish either man, but rather pay respect to the talent and training of the other.
The elder Lipson and Obarzanek never met, and in the slipperiness of this imagined meeting, Two Jews becomes a study in what exactly happens when two people meet. Here, it is a conversation about fathers and about art forms; but it is also about frictions in politics, religion, and friendships. Always we must ask: what generation are we watching? How closely are they cleaving to the performance score? Where is the line between theatre and dance, between father and son? Or is there no line at all?
AUSTRALIAN STAGE ON LINE
Review by Liza Dezfouli
Two Jews Walk into a Theatre came about when actor and theatremaker Brian Lipson (via an Australia Council Fellowship) chose to work with 25 different artists on completely open briefs – he and choreographer Gideon Obarzanek improvised a conversation as their fathers, Laurence Lipson and Zenek Obarzanek.
Lucy Guerin directs this evilly funny show where two proud yet bemused fathers meet in the foyer of the Arts House and discover that their respective sons are the performers in the show they are each waiting to see. They are polite with each other to begin with, discussing how a town hall can become an arts centre and the failings thereof, then move through a conversation about their sons’ arts practices but eventually find themselves on opposing sides of politics. The dissection of the artistic careers of the sons as seen by their dads is especially delicious. So are their efforts to stay connected even after they find themselves in opposition regarding Australia’s immigration policies and the establishment and western support of the State of Israel. Their life experiences have led them to defend certain positions and neither man hesitates to loudly challenge and provoke the other.
Brian Lipson’s dad was English, a military man from the midlands whose forebears came to England from the shtetls of Russia. Obarzanek’s dad, of Polish descent, moved to Israel and served in the Israeli army, arriving there just after the six day war of 1967. Lipson points out that if you go back a few generations their families would have been in similar situations in similar environments yet these two men hold wildly antagonistic world views. As always with history, hearing the personal experience brings the past intensely to life and one of the strengths of the show is in how damned fascinating it is to hear their stories and gain an appreciation of their hopes for their families.
The spontaneous quality of the show comes from it not being scripted; rather a long sheet of butchers’ paper lies on the floor with prompts to the performers as to what to talk about in what order, and which also acts to remind the audience of the conceit. The last few minutes of the show sees Lipson and Obarzanek come back to themselves and perform a segment of eloquent and ritualized physical theatre, speaking to a broader experience of masculinity and vulnerability, and to how much their fathers have informed them beyond words and performance.
Two Jews Walk Into a Theatre... is so convulsively hilarious that I wanted to slap the knee of the person next to me, pinch their cheeks and roar in their face. However, it’s more than that – the show works and appeals on different levels. Lipson in one interview referred to the conversations as his father that created Two Jews as a form of therapy he recommends highly. Whatever, the outcome is unmissable and unforgettable.
Review by Michael Brindley
So... there are two men sitting in a theatre foyer, waiting for a show. They don’t know each other.. but a conversation begins. Because they’re two old Jews, the conversation begins with argumentative kvetching. Look at this foyer. It’s too small. They turn a Town Hall into a theatre – and the theatre is – what? big enough for maybe four hundred people? Can four hundred people fit in this foyer? No. It’s too small..The two old Jews are played by Brian Lipson and Gideon Obarzanek, seated on the apron of the Arts House proscenium arch theatre, each of them acting (?), impersonating (?), channelling (?) his father. Mr Lipson, a superb actor, creates a real character in voice, gesture and body language. Mr Obarzanek, primarily a choreographer, plays it dead straight with a sort of solemn, tight stillness that works perfectly well in this context. Such is the ubiquity of ‘Jewish humour’ that even the goyim recognise the jokes, the rhythms, the fatalistic negativity, the nitpicking and the irresistibility of argument for argument’s sake. I suspect that many in the audience recognised their own fathers, possibly with shock and pain – and being Jewish, guilt.
Their ‘conversation’, under the direction of Lucy Guerin, is essentially an improvisation that has been honed and practiced over years. According to Mr Obarzanek, the show is really about him and Mr Lipson: playing their fathers is a way of getting outside themselves and gaining a new perspective.
So the conversation and the kvetching proceed. Each father reveals that he is actually there to see his son in the show – i.e. a show with Brian Lipson and Gideon Obarzanek. One father is trepidatious, the other doesn’t really get it, but he’s proud. And so they go on, sometimes talking past each other, Obarzanek Senior expounding dogmatically, Lipson Senior checking his watch as if not all that interested.
But as the differences between the two opinionated fathers on stage become sharper, the conversation becomes darker and more and more heated. As elderly Jews, each has a fraught and complex history. Lipson Senior (original name ‘Lipshitz’) is a London Jew, who served in the British Army; he’s a sceptical leftist with an ironic sense of humour. Obarzanek Senior is an Eastern European who fled the Nazis; he’s spent time in Israel, he’s proud, ‘conservative’ – and just a little humourless. Their exchanges move into the most contentious subjects: ‘discipline’, refugees, the Holocaust, Israel... until their conflict becomes shocking (for them and the audience) and locks them into furious silence, a chasm between them.
And then the show takes a sudden and unexpected turn that throws all that’s gone before into a whole new light. And then it does it again, switching into a whole new mode, with Bosco Shaw’s beautiful lighting design, to express what unites these two old Jews rather than what has divided them. If this show is a character study that makes a statement, the performers give it the weight that makes it both moving and entertaining.
THE PLUS ONES
an online magazine
Review by Christian G
Two Jews walk into a theatre. The title of this sublime theatre show was doubly misleading. Firstly, it suggested to me a light hour of comedy. Maybe two Jewish comedians doing a bit of stand-up. That’s somewhat my fault. There are many great Jewish comics, but that’s not what I came to see this night. Brian is an actor, designer and director who grew up performing experimental theatre in England, before settling in Australia. Gideon has won awards as choreographer of contemporary dance. The kind of dance that might seem robotic and weird. Incomprehensible if not provocative. Well, those are the biased opinions we hear from critics that know the performers better than anyone. Their dads. Which leads to the second misconception – there are four, not two, Jewish men in this play. Brian, Gideon and their two fathers.
This is the setup: the fictitious encounter of two Jewish fathers, sitting in the foyer of the North Melbourne Town Hall. Both here to see their sons on stage. It starts with light witty banter, remarking on how disproportionately small the foyer is for the spacious hall. Funny mainly because that is exactly what I had been thinking being crammed standing outside, minutes before, waiting to take my seat. They move easily into anecdotes involving their own parents and their children, both of whom chose lives as artists which would be impossible if not inconceivable for their parents: migrants and refugees. The humorous reminiscences transition to passionate and heated arguments about what it means to be Jewish, to support Israel. Issues regarding Palestine and immigrants in Australia. They scream and accuse each other. A very long pause where they refuse to speak is followed by a reconciliation. This is followed by a meta reflection on death. Both fathers movingly describe the circumstance of their passing away and their death-bed reconciliations with Brian and Gideon.
The simple premise is powerful. Reassessing their lives by role-playing their fathers is therapeutic, revealing and transcends the limits of the stage. This simple psychodrama experiment left me reeling.
At an age, forty, where I am old enough to compare my own life story to that of my father, and having lived through his death too – it forced me to reconsider our own failings in a different and forgiving light. I really believe that this will be one of those exceptionally rare works where I walk away with a different take on my own life.
Two-thirds into the performance, it is finally time for the two older men to leave the foyer and take their seats in the audience. Now Gideon and Brian, the sons, take the stage as the performers. No dialogue. A choreographed abstract dance to arresting minimalist music. It is a startling and brilliant contrast and complement to the mechanics of the opening dialogue. A wondrous coda that is unique, brilliant and unforgettable.