Israeli actor stars in NJT production of ‘Conviction’

Israeli actor Ami Dayan stars in the New Jewish Theatre production of ‘Conviction.’

By Barry Gilbert, Special to the Jewish Light

“What is the Jewish theme?”

Israeli actor, writer and director Ami Dayan got that question a lot when he came to the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art on a writing grant and began learning how to incubate a production in the heartland and take it to New York City. He and his family planned to stay in Denver for only a year; that was 14 years ago.

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“What is the Jewish theme?” Dayan got that question more often than a simple, “Tell me about the play.”

“And so I thought, do I know of a piece that I can be engrossed by, engaged by, that really celebrates that as its core theme? And this came to mind,” he says.

“This” is “Conviction” by Oren Neeman, a story of oppression, faith and religious identity. It revolves around a priest who was burned at the stake during the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century for having a relationship with a Jewish woman. The one-man show, translated from its original Hebrew, adapted by and starring Dayan, opens April 4 and plays over two weeks in-the-round in the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the Jewish Community Center.

“Conviction,” which had its world premiere in Denver in 2007, is based on a real case from 1486: the confession of a Spanish priest named Andres Gonzalez of Salamanca, who fell in love with and secretly married a Jewish woman and was subsequently put to death.

Projections of documents from the Gonzalez case file are part of the play’s spare stage set.

Dayan, 50, was born and reared on a secular kibbutz in northern Israel. But as a child, he lived with his family in St. Louis from 1971-73, when his father, Amatzia Dayan, was Israel’s shaliach, or emissary, to St. Louis, based at the Jewish Community Center. When he came to America, he could speak no English; when he returned to the kibbutz, his grandfather pronounced him an American.

Dayan would continue to soak up other influences after high school and military service in Israel, living, studying and working in New York City, Paris and London, as well as in Tel Aviv. There, he turned to directing, working steadily in the Israeli repertory system and writing and directing for Israeli television.

Neeman, the playwright of “Conviction,” is a fellow kibbutznik whom Dayan met in 12th grade and with whom he worked in Israel. Neeman based the play on the book “Confession” by Yonaton Ben-Nachum, who was one of Neeman’s teachers. Ben-Nachum gave Neeman a handwritten copy of the book “and Oren was engrossed by it, and he said he could make it into a one-man show,” Dayan says. “I believe the show actually opened before the book was out.”

The story in “Conviction” is “only a portion of the novel, (Neeman) took a lot of liberties with it and kind of gave it some structure,” says Dayan, who once considered translating the novel into English but abandoned the project. He says the book is “untranslatable” and likens it to trying to translate James Joyce into Hebrew.

The action of the story in 1486 is actually a play within a play: An Israeli scholar goes to Madrid to research the Inquisition and is caught stealing the file of the Gonzalez case. The scholar is lucky: He averts deportation or prison when a Spanish official decides to intervene and interrogate him to learn why the scholar was so obsessed with the case that he would risk trying to steal the file.

That enveloping story came about when Neeman and the original show’s actor/director decided to “go to all of these places,” Dayan says. “So they went to Montalban, they went to Salamanca, they basically followed the story. And they went to see the file itself. And when they saw the file, the modern-day enveloping story was born.”

Those modern bookends are set in 1960s Spain during the Fascist Falangist  regime of Francisco Franco. That setting is part of Dayan’s adaptation.

“This is actually something that the Denver Center (for the Performing Arts) brought on board,” Dayan says. “They commissioned it, and we did workshops there, and at some point Kent (Thompson, artistic director of the center) said it would be nice if the whole issue of oppression was a theme. And he said it would be nice if the file itself, the words, just the piece of the document, was also under oppression, and we said: ‘Franco.’

“It also solved another issue, that when this was done in Israel it was in the ‘90s, before cell phones were all over the place, so you could have a modern-day interrogation and not be fax-, email- or Google-based. So that really allowed us to play low-tech in the modern time and give us a third layer of looking back: from now to the ‘60s and then from the ‘60s to the 15th century.”

Dayan, who is related to the family of the famous politician and military General Moshe Dayan (Ami’s grandfather and Moshe were cousins), spent the ‘90s working in the Israeli repertory system before coming to Denver in 1999. During the period, acting took a back seat to writing and directing, and he adapted works such as “Kiss of the Spider Woman” into Hebrew.

“I was in the most happening repertory troupe of the time,” Dayan said recently during a wide-ranging interview last month in St. Louis. “So I was doing seven shows in repertory. But during the day while we were in Tel Aviv, I could direct pieces. So that’s where directing began. And it really took me away from acting. I stopped acting. I didn’t act for about eight years before moving to Boulder.

“We didn’t know about the existence of Boulder a month before getting there, and it was quite remarkable, and we really liked it, and we thought we were going to stick around for another half a year. It’s been 14 years since.”

Dayan came to the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art on a writing grant from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation and found a mentor in Donovan Marley, artistic director of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Marley impressed on Dayan the importance of bringing his projects to New York.

It took Dayan four years to bring his first adapted play to New York, “A Tale of a Tiger” by Nobel winner Dario Fo. Subsequent pieces got to New York on shorter schedules, as Dayan found Boulder to be a good incubator for larger markets.

Dayan, who is married with two children (a daughter “14½ going on 21” and a son “11 going on 3”), says the issues dramatized in the play still speak to modern audience.

“We haven’t gone that far in the sense of the liberties that we allow ourselves, that our society allows us,” says Dayan, citing same-sex marriage as a cause that can bring personal, career and physical risk to gays and lesbians.

“So I think that’s what compelled me to the story, exactly this point of where you draw your line, where is it that you say this is me? This is what I have to preserve. Because if I lose this, I lose my whole being. I don’t think there’s any change in that.”