Two Jews Walk into a Theatre

Theatre, Drama
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Two Jews Walk into a Theatre
Photograph: Bryony Jackson

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?

By: Jane Howard

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