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  • Tovah Feldshuh has made a career playing heroic women. She's portrayed Tallulah Bankhead, Sarah Bernhardt, Stella Adler, Sophie Tucker, Katherine Hepburn, Diana Vreeland, Miss Jean Brodie, three queens of Henry VIII, (in a TV mini-series) a Czech freedom fighter, (in an Off Broadway play) nine Jews who age from birth to death, a woman masquerading as a man, and (in a Broadway musical) a Brazilian bombshell fielding two husbands. Last year, Feldshuh won acclaim onscreen playing the very hip Jewish mother in Kissing Jessica Stein. Now, among those and 80-something other roles, she's tackling the many facets of Russian-born, American-bred Israeli prime minister Golda Meir.

    The play is Golda's Balcony by William Gibson of Miracle Worker and Two for the Seesaw fame, at Soho's Manhattan Ensemble Theater (M.E.T.), where's it's become the group's second consecutive hit of the season - following Hank Williams: Lost Highway. Ticket demand has resulted in a second extension, through June 1, and talk of a move to Broadway.

    David Fishelson, M.E.T.'s artistic director, approached Feldshuh late last year to play Meir in a new adaptation of Gibson's 1977 Broadway play Golda, directed by Arthur Penn, which had a three-month run starring Anne Bancroft and featuring a cast of 24.

    The playwright had reworked his play as a monologue last summer for actress Annette Miller, who performed it at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox and Boston. Feldshuh, who was doing her "other thing," Tovah: Out of Her Mind, her concert concept at Tanglewood, got a call from a friend, who said, "ëI just saw this play and it's got your name on it."

    When informed what the play was about, Feldshuh exclaimed, "Oy vey! Another old, Jewish woman! Just what I need!" Later she said that playing older women was becoming a career trend. "I basically audition for jobs at 45 [well, she is a bit older] and convince directors that I'm nearly 60. It's hysterical. Now, I'm playing a character 25 years my senior!"

    If you've experienced Feldshuh as Meir, you would think that there were months and months of preparations. But the play opened in mid-March, with only three weeks rehearsal. "It was hair-raising!" said Feldshuh, who had to honor concert commitments a week after rehearsals began. "That included the special fittings for body and leg padding and a prosthetic nose."

    The actress had the foresight to sneak away in mid-January for a couple of days to Milwaukee, where she absorbed the world of Golda Mabovitch, as she was known when she immigrated there from Kiev.

    Feldshuh's performance has garnered critical acclaim and Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award nominations for Outstanding Solo Performance. The play has also received an OCC nomination for Best Play.

    By show business standards, Golda's Balcony came about very quickly.

    In February, Feldshuh, director Scott Schwartz and Fishelson visited Gibson in Stockbridge, MA, in an attempt to secure permission to restructure his play. He said yea to some things; nae, to others. When he was reluctant to agree to a change, Feldshuh told him: "This is going to be such an under-the-radar production in a small theatre in Soho, that the stakes are not that great. The worst-case scenario is that the critics will say I was lousy in a great play."

    Feldshuh was persuasive. The team got almost everything they wanted. Feldshuh admits she used a tried-and-true tactic. "I finally asked Mr. Gibson for the big one," she says. "He didn't think so, but I kept after it. As the day wore on, he told me, ëDo whatever you want.' I think he just got tired!" [The clincher was that Mr. Gibson would see a late rehearsal and give his approval. He did.]

    The actress made her Broadway debut in her 20s, going on to star in Yentl, Sarav·! and Lend Me a Tenor, each earning her a Tony nomination for Best Actress - and three Drama Desk Awards. She won an Emmy nomination for her role in the mini-series Holocaust. In addition to numerous film roles and TV guest appearances, she has a recurring role on TV's top-rated Law & Order series. A consistent Feldshuh career trend has been one-woman shows: Vreeland, Bankhead et al and now Meir.

    "When someone such as myself is looking for subjects for interesting one-person vehicles," she says "who's going to sustain that type of scrutiny but a heroic woman?" Vreeland, Bankhead, Meir, "like many of the women I've portrayed, were groundbreakers. They had her own heroism. They were feminist without being a feminist. All broke taboos."

    Feldshuh breaks up laughing. "Oh, my, I've never given an interview where I've drawn parallels between Diana Vreeland, Tallulah Bankhead and Golda Meir! It's hysterical! But there are parallels. They were women with access to power who demanded respect - or, in Tallulah's case, disrespect. None of ëmy' women made apologies for rubbing people the wrong way. Vreeland set new trends in fashion, Bankhead saw herself as a groundbreaking member of the full life movement and Meir envisioned a state and became a stateswoman. All were women to be reckoned with."

    The actress went all-out to portray the chain-smoking, black coffee-loving Meir. Since she had never smoked, she even took smoking lessons. There is a haze about the M.E.T. stage because Felshuh is constantly puffing away - sometimes to the irritation of those in the front rows. [There are signs warning of smoking onstage and the M.E.T. staff attempts to move audience members who might have a problem.]

    "I didn't have a choice," says Feldshuh, grinning to show her "tobacco stained" teeth. "Golda was a woman who took chances that were extreme. I don't drink much or shoot up. I have a fairly normal life - marriage, kids, no maid. My acting career is an opportunity to explore parameters without living them, but here I'm supposed to be the truthometer - truthful, truthful, truthful to Golda. So far, I don't inhale and I'm not hooked. We tried using vegetable cigarettes, but they smelled up the place. It was as if someone was cooking vanilla and marijuana."

    Feldshuh's research really educated her on Meir. "In particular, Golda was a woman of remarkable intelligence, voracious appetite and untrampled emotional freedom. She was not your typical sweet motherly or grandmotherly type. She could be a fierce warrior. A lioness. She had no fears because she was dedicated to a cause greater than herself. The seminal incidents in Golda's life were the pogroms she experienced as a child of a poor family in Russia. These pogroms happened in the Passover/Easter week, during what was called ëthe blood libel,' when peasants would accuse the Jews of using the blood of Christian children to make their matzo."

    Meir was a beloved stateswoman to many, but not loved and adored by everyone. "Friendly with everyone in politics actually doesn't work," laughed Feldshuh. "To me, it appeared that Golda always tried to take the higher ground." Her demanding political career came at the expense of literally destroying her marriage and family. One very surprising aspect of Meir was the number of lovers the P.M. had.

    The play is based on brutally honest conversations Gibson had with the P.M.in 1977, a year before her death, and is set during the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict known as the "Yom Kippur War" - when Meir, perhaps, even bluffed the U.S. into thinking it had the nuclear capability to drop a bomb.

    Commenting on the buzz that Golda's Balcony will move from the 150-seat M.E.T. to a larger space, Feldshuh said, "Off Broadway, I'm making what the nanny makes. So it would have to be a small Broadway house to interest me in helping the move, but let's stay humble, let's stay vigilant, let's sell groups. And if it's to be a bigger space, it should be announced as a limited run. I'd like to keep it as intimate as 'Broadway' can keep it."

    She explained why she would not be interested in moving from the M.E.T. to another Off Broadway theatre. "What sense would it make? We wouldn't be eligible for more awards. We're selling out two weeks in advance and working toward selling out a month in advance. Any larger Off Broadway houses we'd want are taken. Broadway is my home. I'm not interested in Off Broadway money. It's not TV money, not concert money. The move would have to mean the difference between making cab money and earning the sort of money that will help pay for piano lessons, college tuition and your personal assistant."

    With the globalization of the planet, Feldshuh said the barriers between power structures are disintegrating. "I feel I need to know more than just how to be a good actress. I took the Commercial Theatre Institute seminar to learn about producing for the commercial theater. Over twenty hours, I was exposed to the top professionals in the business. It was a life-changing experience. I want to be of aid and knowledge to assist David and M.E.T. in making sure this play takes flight not only in its current run but also beyond. Theater is, after all, show business. Some of it is art, but I'm convinced some of it is science. I wanted to learn the science."

    How does Feldshuh balance her acting and concert career with family? "That's easy," she immediately replies. "My husband Andy (an attorney and East Coast coordinator for an international real estate firm) and children come first." The couple have been married 27 years and have a 19-year-old son at Harvard and a 15-year-old daughter.

    Feldshuh laughed that her philosophy is: Marry like a Jew, Divorce like a Catholic. "I don't believe in divorce once children come into a marriage. I've seen so much damage. It's a first marriage. It's our last marriage. Andy's the most tolerant husband in the world. I love him. He loves me. We get along, but we fight. We have bad days. We have worst days! We have better days. There's a love affair and, after marriage, building a life with someone. I am blessed. I not only married a great man, but a person who took our intelligence gene pool and put it through the stratosphere."

    For more on Tovah Feldshuh, visit www.tovahfeldshuh.com.



    Manhattan Ensemble Theater, the "writers' theatre" at 55 Mercer in Soho, has had the kind of season any Off Broadway theatre or Broadway production would envy: Two huge hits that have had two extensions. One, Hank Williams: Lost Highway has found outside producers and been transferred to the new Little Shubert; and Golda's Balcony is sold out and attracting producers with a mind to move it to a mid-size or small Broadway house for early Fall.

    Sandra Garner, M.E.T.'s managing director, described their mission as "being dedicated to producing new works derived from fiction, journalism, film and memoir. In so doing, we hope to provide a home for the development of the dramatization as a literary form."

    David Fishelson, M.E.T.'s artistic director and, from 1989-1992, managing director of the Jean Cocteau Repertory (and its associate artistic director for two years and where he also wrote and directed projects), couldn't be more thrilled. "It's only our second full season, and we couldn't have been more fortunate - especially given these times. I often have to stop and make sure I'm not dreaming. We're looking to the future, to next season, and we can't help but be excited."

    Fishelson said he's pouring over stacks of scripts to set the 2003-2004 season. One definite production will be the American premiere of Providence by Lorenzo DeStefano, which had to be bumped from this season because of the two extensions. It's based on David Mercer's screenplay for the 1977 Alain Resnais fantasy film about a writer attempting to complete his last novel. The film starred Dirk Bogarde, John Gielgud, Ellen Burstyn, David Warner and Elaine Stritch, so casting should be interesting.


    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

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