Last Wednesday morning I snuck in with two groups of private high school students to see “Golda’s Balcony” at the Indianapolis Civic Theatre. This one-person show starring Miki Mathioudakis as Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was written by William Gibson and directed at Civic by Robert J. Sorbera.
It is a beautiful and inspiring piece, brimming with historical information about a fascinating country and personal information about a fascinating woman. It takes place near the end of Meir’s life. She invites us to remember with her Israel’s process towards independence and her own. Both involved heartache and sacrifice. Both left me weeping.
Although it includes a lot of storytelling, this is definitely a theatre piece rather than an oral tradition storytelling piece. (As you know, I love and blog about both.) It is fully staged and carefully blocked, with a lot of theatrical razzle-dazzle in the form of music and other sound effects, lighting, costuming, set, props, and big screen projections. It is presented with the house lights down. It is not a very portable piece, and you don’t have to/get to work very hard at all as an audience member to help make the story come alive.
However, like a lot of oral tradition storytelling, one teller (or in this case, one actor) is actually many, many characters, not just the narrator (or in this case, the main character.) Mathioudakis brilliantly portrays not only Golda Meir but also Meir portraying a whole cast of people from Meir’s and Israel’s stories. These people include King Abdullah, David Ben-Gurion, Henry Kissinger, her husband, Morris Myerson, and more. She skillfully incorporates a variety of accents and mannerisms. Although there is a wealth of recorded sound effects in the show, there are no recorded voices.
I loved this. I wouldn’t have minded if it had been “just” Mathioudakis as Goldi-la telling me “what’s in my heart” in my living room. She is that engaging and the script is that interesting.
However, the theatrical razzle-dazzle is satisfying, too.
Margaret Ward is the stage manager. Troy Trinkle is the technical director.
The desert-colored, multi-level, “cement block” cut-away set was cleverly designed and lit by Ryan Koharchik to subtly evoke a variety of places, including Meir’s homes, governmental meeting rooms, and podiums. The uneven yet orderly shape of the set even echoes the landscape of the Israeli city (Tel Aviv?) shown in one of the huge slides at the back.
The projections are much more than a wallpaper slide show, however. Designed by Zach Rosing Productions, the huge, flowing dance of mostly black-and-white photographs of related people, places, and events serves as an eloquent visual enhancement to Gibson’s words and Mathioudakis’ portrayal. Patrick Mull and Zach Rosing are the projectionists.
Michael J. Lasley’s sound design includes exquisitely dour cello music that Meir “could do without” (eventually we learn why) plus heart-wrenching war-related explosions. The sound board operator is Amy Mullen.
Meir’s sensible black lace-up shoes and serviceable brown suit were designed by Jean Engstrom. Her graying, smoothed-back hair was designed by Roy Jones. Robin Uhrig is the costume assistant.
Brent E. Marty, Civic’s director of music and education, led a “talk back” session with Mathioudakis and the high school students after the show. I was charmed by their questions and her answers. Here is what I was able to scribble down:
Student: “What are some of the obstacles to being the only actor on stage?”
Mathioudakis: “There’s nobody to bail you out. There’s a certain loneliness. Theatre is usually a very social activity.”
Marty: “The cast party is dismal.”
Mathioudakis: “There is no one but me, myself, and I if I get in trouble. Of course, there is a support staff back stage, but there is no one on stage to play off of.”
I thought, “Ah, but if you were storytelling instead of acting, you would have the whole audience on your side, helping you do the work. We’re on your side even in a theatre piece, but because the house lights are off, you can’t see this.”
But Mathioudakis gets the magical teller-listener dynamic on some level, I think, because she added, “After rehearsing a solo show like this, I go home exhausted, but after performing this solo show with an audience, I go home energized.”
Student: “How long have you been acting?”
Mathioudakis: “My first role was here at Junior Civic when I was in 4th grade. I’m 53 now…My day job is being a hospital chaplain. I do theatre to feed my soul.”
Student: “What is your ethnic and religious background?”
Mathioudakis: “I’m Greek-American. I’m an ordained minister of the Disciples of Christ. I grew up here in Indianapolis, went to Westlane and North Central.”
There was a rumble of recognition by the students then.
“Do you guys know the Riviera Club?”
More rumbles of recognition.
“My parents would not join even though we were eligible because in the 1960s when I was growing up, the Rivie wouldn’t accept blacks or Jews… (Meir is very different from me but) as long as you stand where you’re standing, you’re always going to be the good guy…It’s good to walk in another’s shoes…I love that Meir said that everyone deserves a home, including our neighbors.”
Student: “How did you memorize all those lines?”
Mathioudakis: “I finally discovered something that I wish I had discovered years ago: I learn faster when I’m walking or running. I set myself the goal of learning three pages every day during my five-mile walk.”
Student: “Were those real cigarettes you were smoking on stage?”
Mathioudakis: “If I had it do over again, I would never have picked up my first cigarette in middle school.” She finally was able to quit smoking, though, so she dreaded having to smoke as part of this role. (Meir was a chain smoker.) In fact, she tried it and got sick.
Fortunately, the Board of Health prohibits Civic from using real cigarettes because the second-hand smoke goes right out to the audience. So…”The ones we use are fake. The ends glow, and I have a Zippo lighter that makes a good sound to go with it.”
Student: “If you were prime minister of Israel today, what would you do?”
Mathioudakis: “I thank God I’m not, but…I believe in prayer, and I believe in actually talking to people. I would try to talk and listen.”
Student: “What did you do to get in character?”
Mathioudakis: “I read three biographies of Golda Meir. I also borrowed a DVD of famous speeches from the public library. One of her speeches was on it. I also watched a 1980 movie about her, not just to hear her but to hear and differentiate the other characters. And just putting on her makeup for the show every time helps me get into character.
Student: “What did you learn about Golda and about yourself?”
Mathioudakis: “How she must have wrestled (as a leader) and how she must have struggled in her personal life. I learned to trust myself more. Doing this show solidified my beliefs about the value of a person, and that we need our children…By the way, how many first-time voters are in the audience today?”
It was thrilling to see the many hands that went up!
Student: “What is your favorite scene?”
Mathioudakis: “Probably the Cyprus scene.” Meir visited the Holocaust survivors who had been transferred to detention camps in Cyprus from concentration camps at the end of World War Two. She asked the adults to give up their places in the list of who would be released next in order that the children could be released.
Mathioudakis said she has been to Cyprus herself (“there are a lot of Greeks there”) and been moved by the Jewish graveyards.
Not one of the students asked about Meir’s feminism, but that was what interested me most. Civic’s study guide for this show, compiled, designed, and edited by Brent E. Mary, quotes Meir as saying “Women’s Liberation is just a lot of foolishness.” And yet, in the play, Meir remembers her fears that if she married she would disappear. Marriage did, in fact, threaten her integrity as a person and in 1928 she made her own declaration of independence.
One last thing that intrigued me about this show is that the playwright, William Gibson, first wrote a play called “Golda” in 1977. “However,” the program says, “He was never fully satisfied with the result. He retackled the play at the age of 88 in 2002, feeling that he had gained a greater perspective on his material. The result was ‘Golda’s Balcony.’”
I am very glad he went back to it!
“Golda’s Balcony” continues at the Indianapolis Civic Theatre through Sunday, November 16, 2008. For more information or to make a reservation, please call 317-923-4597. Parking is free on the Marian College campus, but you will probably not be able to park right next to the Civic Theatre building, so give yourself plenty of time in which to park and walk.
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com