"There are three female historical figures that I have wanted to play: Golda Meir, Indira Ghandi and Margaret Thatcher. And the last two haven't been offered to me."
Thus speaks Tovah Feldshuh, currently performing her award-winning, one-woman show "Golda's Balcony" -- about Golda Meir -- to sell-out audiences on Broadway. She will be bringing the show to Los Angeles for 24 performances only, and is delighted to be coming here, saying, "Los Angeles is the second artistic home for any performer."
Feldshuh is speaking from her home in New York. Passionate, erudite and eloquent, as our interview progresses, it becomes clear that many of the character traits that Feldshuh embodies are in sync with those of the late Israeli prime minister.
"I've played many Jewish mothers," Feldshuh says, "but I'd never played the mother of a State. [Golda] was the women's movement without the women's movement." Feldshuh attributes part of the phenomenal success of the show to the fact that, "people in America love Golda Meir. She was not conflicted, she didn't shed our blood."
She elaborates, explaining how she was cornered by an Israeli about performing the show.
The woman screamed at her: "Didn't you tell them she murdered 2,500 boys?"
In response, Feldshuh simply said, "No," explaining to the woman, "I'm just an actor playing the prime minister, but I empathize with your agony."
You'd expect no less of an answer from Feldshuh, a woman who has played a plethora of "real life" figures in her career, including Katherine Hepburn, Sarah Bernhardt and Tallulah Bankhead. So when asked about undertaking the huge responsibility of portraying a historical figure, Feldshuh simply says, "The real figures are easier. They're a finite entity you can study. And it's a question of what journey you want to take. Your life force and the way you meet challenges are through transformation."
And that, she says, is her own personal tikkun.
Ultimately though, she says, "My job is to evoke the essence [of my characters] through my research, my willingness to become accurate and do whatever it takes."
To play Golda, that "whatever it takes" included two trips to Milwaukee ("to nail that accent"), a 12-day research trip to Israel and logging in endless hours at the Museum of Television and Broadcasting in New York, where she pored over archival footage and recordings of the late, great Israeli premier.
"At this age, I just take great roles," she says philosophically. "My biggest breakthroughs have been in the Jewish arena," she adds, citing her performance on Broadway in "Yentl" in her 20s, and Judy Stein -- the mother of the title character -- in the 2001 sleeper hit "Kissing Jessica Stein" for which she won a Golden Satellite Award. Her resume alone lists a slew of awards that hark back to her "Yentl" days and beyond, including three Best Actress Tony Award nominations, four Drama Desk Awards, four Outer Critics Circle Awards, the Obie, the Theatre World and the Lucille Lortel Awards. And then, of course, there was her Emmy Award nomination for her searing role as Helena, the Czech freedom fighter in the riveting miniseries, "Holocaust."
And she loves playing Golda.
"This play is such a clear example of what it is to be loyal, to be connected to authentic roots," she explains. "And it's the greatest role of my career so far, not just because of [Golda's] contribution as a wife and mother, but also as a commander in chief. As a prime minister!"
Critics have concurred that "Golda's Balcony" is indeed the role of Feldshuh's career. They concede that it's her riveting performance that has carried this play to unforeseeable heights -- taking it from obscurity off-Broadway and landing a sell-out Broadway run and now a West Coast premiere. Feldshuh is also set to take the show to London's West End toward the end of this year.
However, the play itself has been heavily criticized; for William Gibson's script, deemed flawed from the outset in attempting to have Meir recall her actions towards the end of her life. In doing so, the piece really becomes Gibson's way of taking dramatic license in deciding what he believes Meir thought and felt of many events, including that most crucial period in Israel's history -- the 1973 Yom Kippur War in which she agonized over whether to use nuclear weapons. It's also been criticized for its direction (by Scott Schwartz), described at times as "simplistic, crude and overly-theatrical" as well as for historical inaccuracies, which many Jews who have seen the show argue went beyond Gibson's right to artistic license.
Yet whether Meir would have had pangs of consciousness toward the end of her life (she died in 1978), and revealed everything from affairs, to regrets over her actions as Gibson's script implies, there is no mistaking that America's war on Iraq has played no small part in seeing "Golda's Balcony" tap into a major collective nerve.
Feldshuh says: "Our president took us to war in Iraq. And 'Golda's Balcony' also deals with an impossible war -- a mother lioness screaming for peace in the belly of war. We will not soon get over this war, " she intones solemnly. And then she reveals that she has a copy of every obituary of every American soldier who has been killed in the war in Iraq.
"I have them posted stage left in the theater," she says, where she can see them before she goes onstage each night.
Feldshuh says this resonates with all audiences, and in a world gone mad and a world at war, "This play," she concludes, "is a steadfast, upright shofar -- that mystical clarion call of 'Hear O Israel, here we are.'"
"Golda's Balcony" plays Feb. 1-25 at the Wadsworth Theatre, 11301 Wilshire Blvd No. 226, Brentwood. For tickets, visit Ticketmaster.com or call (213) 365-3500. For group sales, call (310) 479-3636.
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