March 15, 2012 | The Jerusalem Post

Speechless in a Noisy World

The Austrian Jewish psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud argued that language is non-existent in dreams. In short, according to Freud’s theory, symbols saturate the unconscious dream world and serve as communication. Hanoch Rosenn, one of Israel’s most popular performers and a world-famous mime artist, transports spectators with his new show Speechless into a hybrid Freudian sphere of conscious and unconscious symbols.

Rosenn – known as the prince of mime – has crisscrossed the globe with his silent speech shows and gangly, breathtaking movements. The late French Jewish mime superstar Marcel Marceau once said, “Mime, like music, knows neither borders nor nationalities.” Rosenn fills Marceau’s comment with meaning and content.

That helps explain why he has captivated audiences not only in Israel but in Berlin, where he just concluded a roughly threeweek run beginning in February. While he has performed elsewhere in Germany, this was his first show in Berlin.

“In this world of mime and visual movement you really depend on the imagination of the audience,” Rosenn says, adding that “there are not so many speechless performers.

I have a gift. Why not use it?” With huge box-office success, the winner of the Academy Award for best picture in February, the largely silent film The Artist, showed the universal appeal of speechless performances. And Rosenn has played a key role in the revival of mime over the decades through his ability to modernize the field with video, sophisticated sketches, superb humor and high-tech special effects.

Seated in the packed west Berlin café Literaturhaus, near the Berlin Jewish community center building, in late February, he explains the artistic and political significance of mime. Asked about the staying power of mime, he says, “When I see a Charlie Chaplin film – and I am not putting myself on his level – I am still on the floor laughing. Silence has its powers.”

Speechless contains a brilliant sketch about a passenger meandering through the airport security system. While Israelis have long ago habituated themselves to robust airport security measures, the universal appeal of Rosenn’s scene resonates on all stages in the post 9/11 world.

As a teenage street performer in Munich during a visit in the 1970s, Rosenn attracted large crowds with his intuitive mime skills. His riveting agility and use of silent language would later catapult him onto stages in Europe, North and South America, as well as the Far East. Rosenn has performed his show The Right to Remain Silent at the prominent off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theater in Manhattan’s West Village. Rosenn’s aim is to “push pressure points of laughter and sadness so the audience will identify with what I do without words.”

The bustling shopping district surrounding the Literaturhaus, which was built as a villa in 1889, seemed an apt background for the conversation with Rosenn. On the one hand, the lively street activity filled the city’s urban space with life. On the other hand, the café served, like Rosenn’s performances, as a kind of zone of comfort and catharsis to contemplate the spectrum of charged human emotions.

“I do not want to say that I cover all of life’s spectrum,” says Rosenn. “My main points in life are childhood and memories. The things you want to achieve, love and human nature.”

With his expressive face and dazzling movements, Rosenn captures perhaps not the entire spectrum, but a sizable chunk of life’s enormously complex experiences.

Asked what he thought the appeal of silence was, he answers, “We are so much surrounded by noise channels. It is just a noisy, verbal world. The silence has its powers.”

Rosenn was born in London, leaving as an infant with his parents in 1960 for Israel. His father, Joseph Rosenn, was an Austrian Jew who fled the Nazis in 1938. While in London, Joseph worked for the BBC. Hanoch told me his father would later use his German language skills as a translator at the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem , which began in August 1961 and ended in May 1962, with the death penalty for one of the main architects of the extermination of European Jewry. Joseph’s language fluency encompassed English, Hebrew, Yiddish and of course his native German. Hanoch’s mother Miriam was born in Israel, the daughter of a rabbi. She wrote educational books for children.

What piqued my curiosity about Rosenn’s life trajectory was his artistic path to mime. I had seen Speechless in November at the Jerusalem Center for Performing Arts with my mother. He performed a series of sketches to a packed house of euphoric adults and children.

Some fans have been swept off their feet by Rosenn’s gestures, energy and storytelling.

“He did everything to perfection… that is what you call entertainment,” said one fan who has viewed the giants of musical theater, including Joel Grey in Cabaret and Yul Brynner in The King and I.

HOW DOES an Israeli growing up in Jerusalem during the 1960s and 1970s find his way to a profession that had passed the introduction of “talkies”?

“I studied some pantomime at the Jerusalem youth stage. We studied acting with Joseph Mundi,” says Rosenn. Amos Arbel, the television reporter, exposed him to pantomime and he learned the “basics of mime” from the distinguished French mime instructor Étienne Decroux (1898- 1991). Marcel Marceau trained with Decroux.

While the development of artistic genius is frequently shaped by a confluence of experiences and innate talents, Rosenn says one of his “eureka moments” was viewing the Tel Aviv-born mime Samy Molcho, who had relocated to Vienna and returned to Israel.

“He came for one day to Jerusalem and performed,” says Rosenn, adding that “after one year I performed together with him.”

What is striking about Rosenn’s description of his artistic performance is his interchangeable use of mime and pantomime to characterize his performances. There is an ongoing, highly esoteric discussion about the differences and similarities between the two forms of theatrical expression.

Ironically, Germany helped spark Rosenn’s realization that pantomime would be his true calling. He explains that as a teenager in 1978, he took a trip to Europe with a friend to “find fortune and happiness.” The two Israeli teenagers were trying to make ends meet on $5 a day, he says.

“We went to Munich by train and saw guys playing the guitar on the Marienplatz,” Rosenn says, spurring him to ask himself, “What can I do? Maybe I can do pantomime and use an international language.”

His spontaneous decision attracted 300 to 400 people, including a bounty of 300 deutschmarks for his impromptu sketch. “It changed my life,” he says.

Rosenn returned to Israel and created a one-man show, which was a magnet for large turnouts at the Pargod Theater in Jerusalem. Yediot Aharonot and Ma’ariv reported at the time on the rising teenage pantomime star.

Rosenn did his three years of IDF service as a pantomime performer. He says with a smile, “Everybody gives what he can.”

The teenage Marcel Marceau joined the French Resistance and delivered his first public mime performance for a group of roughly 3,000 American soldiers in 1944. During his IDF service, Rosenn tells me he was appointed director of all entertainment for Israeli troops, and also did choreography.

When asked about the American actor Joel Grey, who played the master of ceremonies in arguably the best film musical of all time, Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, Rosenn says that Grey “is one of my main inspirations in life.” The scene for Grey’s blend of mime and musical sketches is the Kit Kat Klub of pre-Nazi Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

There are stunning parallels between Grey and Rosenn.

Writing his theater review of the 1966 play Cabaret, where Grey makes his first appearance in the role, Walter Kerr, The New York Times’s critic, observed, “Joel Grey bursts from the darkness like a tracer bullet… Mr. Grey is cheerful, charming, soulless and conspiratorially wicked… he is the silencer of bad dreams, the gleeful puppet of pretended joy, sin on a string.”

While Rosenn’s performance is neither soulless nor wicked, he conveys a playful mischievousness that pleasantly rattles spectators. Amazingly, he indeed silences nightmares. Rosenn darts around the stage and theater in marathon-like style that mesmerizes for the entire duration of the roughly two-hour Speechless show.

He says there are “a few kids who are afraid because I do not speak.” He relates an anecdote involving his wife, a therapist in Jerusalem, who he says “has the talent of speaking with people.” While riding in a taxi in Jerusalem once, the cab driver told her he had no fears, with one exception: as a young boy he had been scared of Rosenn’s lack of speech during his performance. Nonetheless, his shows are embraced by children and adolescents.

Take the example of Rosenn’s hugely successful production of Peter Pan, the 1989 musical commissioned by the Haifa Theater about a boy who never grows old, which turned into a two-year run.

“A young actor came to see me today and said that is why he became an actor,” said Rosenn proudly.

HIS ENGAGEMENT with the audience, including recruiting audience members to participate in his acts, recalls Brecht’s Epic theater. The German playwright Bertolt Brecht, famous for The Threepenny Opera, combined the elements of musical theater with didacticism and a kind of audience involvement. It was Brecht who said that audience members should not hand in their heads with their jackets at the coat check before the performance.

“You draw in black and white and the audience should put the colors in,” says Rosenn about his method. He observes that the audiences in Berlin are “very intelligent.”

“I have a habit,” he says. “I ask the audience, ‘what piece did you like?’” In Berlin I watched his post-show method of questioning in the lobby of the Tipi am Kanzleramt theater in the center of Berlin’s government district. His inquiry reminded me of a low-key version of former New York mayor Ed Koch’s question, “How am I doing?”

Rosenn’s question is not easy to answer, largely because his sketches are packed with competing themes – from the Charlie Chaplin skit, a kind of silent show within a silent film, to the hilarious swimmingpool scene to the pill-popping sketch. There is also the heart-wrenching depiction of his father and the loss of life.

“I do not think the Germans take as many pills as the Americans,” says Rosenn with flash of laughter.

When asked if the field of mime attracts a disproportionate number of Jewish artists relative to the overall population, he says he has “no idea if it is a Jewish thing.” He attributes the number of Jewish mime artists to the phenomenon of the high percentage of Jews in the field of art generally. “Maybe there is something there,” he says.

In addition to Marceau, Grey and countless other Jewish mime stars, the 1930s film star Harpo Marx, one of the Marx Brothers, used silent language to dazzle audiences and generate roars of laughter.

When asked if had experienced anti- Semitism during his international tours, he says, “not really. It is not something that is direct.”

He is, for example, asked questions about Israel such as “why are we so cruel?” “I am not right-wing at all, but I often find myself defending the government because the European perception of the Arab-Israeli conflict seems far from objective,” he says.

As much as Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman is controversial, he understands the need to promote artists to show the “good aspects of Israel,” notes Rosenn. He cited Liberman’s efforts to expand Israel’s presence in small countries. In 2010, Rosenn performed in El Salvador at the time IDF naval commandos intercepted a flotilla of ships attempting to break Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip. The seizure of the Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara resulted in the deaths of nine terrorists, triggering international outrage.

While the global press, and Europe, was fixated on the Mavi Marmara, the press conference in El Salvador with Israel’s Ambassador Mattanya Cohen focused “90 percent on the show and 10% on the conflict in the Mediterranean Sea,” notes Rosenn.

“The Foreign Ministry should use Israel’s artists and painters as a way to fight preconceptions of us as a fighting people like the Spartans,” he says. “We have much more than the army. We have art! We are seven million people with so many shows in the entertainment sector,” he adds.

Rosenn, like the Austrian/Hungarianborn Jewish filmmaker Billy Wilder, is not someone who lives in the past. He bounces, like a ping-pong ball, from one successful project to another. Speechless will move on to the Netherlands in April and May.

“My intention is to bring the show to New York in November and December,” says Rosenn.

While it can be argued that Freud informs Rosenn’s Speechless show with regard to symbols, the Viennese psychoanalyst’s theory of deep laughter surfaces during the show. The emergence of the unconscious through laughter is at the heart of Speechless. Wittingly and unwittingly, Rosenn’s performance carves out new territory in the world of human communication and packed emotions. Speechless is not just speechless.

The writer is a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the European correspondent of The Jerusalem Post.