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Me Dea Ex is confined to her computer chair
By Zipi Shohat
The Acre festival show is a meeting between ancient Greece and the modern world, between the virtual world and live theater and between Jews and Arabs

As the audience enters the amphitheater to see Me
Dea Ex at the Acco Festival for Alternative
Theater in old Acre, it is immediately apparent
that this is no regular performance. The whole
area, which is strewn with swivel chairs, is
surrounded by a huge movie screen. All the
characters in the show will be projected on this
screen - created by computer simulation. Only the
lead role is played by a flesh-and-blood actress -
Khaula Elhaj Dibsi - who converses with the
virtual images. At every juncture in the plot of
the play, the audience is asked a question, and
their interactive answers can affect the outcome
of the on-screen events.



The creator of this show, who is
unknown in theater circles, is
a computer and Internet expert
who answers to the somewhat
mysterious name, Neo. The show
she has created - the
adaptation of "Medea," by
Euripides, which brings
together ancient Greece and the
modern world, the world of the

stage and the computer, and Jews and Arabs - is
not free of problems, and is certainly not a
whole work, but the way in which it copes with
the matters it raises is interesting and
perhaps even trail-blazing.

The division between the virtual world and the
real world is actually maintained by the
direction of the play - director Amir Orian
advised Dibsi while Neo was responsible for the
virtual characters.

The wrong button

The creator of this show - the most
talked-about performance at this year's Acco
Festival of Alternative Theater, has many
names. She was born Neora Fox, her pen name is
Neora Shem Shaul, her Arab acquaintances call
her Noor, in advertising material that she
wrote she calls herself Irena Berger, and her
married name is Neora Berger, but she prefers
to be called Neo.

"When I began to surf the Internet about 15
years ago," she recalls, "I toyed with
different identities and invented names for
myself. Only someone who switches identities
like that on the Internet understands the
feeling."

Neo traveled a long road from working as a
programmer at the company Digital to being a
theater artist. "Right at the beginning I felt
that the Internet was going to change our
lives," she says. "People thought I was a
dreamer, and I really felt ostracized. I relate
to all the layers of technology: to aesthetics,
to the creativity that it evokes, and to its
ideology, which in my case is the ideology of
openness."

Ten years ago she wrote a novel, "Digital
Romance," (in Hebrew) which was published by
Hakibbutz Hameuhad publishers. The story
centers on the love between an Israeli woman
and a Palestinian man who do not know that they
are on opposite sides of the political divide.
"That work dealt with the political side of
coping with the virtual world," she explains.
"Since then I have managed to work for big
American computer companies, and become
self-employed, devoting most of my work to
building Internet sites for institutions like
the Nahum Gutman Museum and the Children's
Museum in Holon."

Neo says that although the computer screen is
flat, it presents a three-dimensional space
that exists on the Internet.

"The preoccupation with the Internet culture,"
she says, led me to investigate two avenues -
the connection between man and machine, and the
connection between man and man via the machine.
Five years ago, since not many were dealing
with this field, I was even invited to lecture
at Tel Aviv University, and today I teach
courses on the influence of the Internet on
cinema and television, its influence on
language and more. All this when I never
attended university myself."

Neo admits that she prefers the computer to a
human environment, and spends most of her day
at her computer. "To a great extent, the
computer responds to me much faster than people
do," she says. "If I hit the wrong button, I
get an error message, but with people, there
can be a misunderstanding that be discovered
only much later, if at all. The properties of
the computer aroused within me a desire to use
the screen as an environment that can tell a
story."

Saving the children

Neo relates that when she began to work on
Medea, she treated the play like a collective
subconscious that bears all the forms in which
plays had been presented in the past. "I chose
to create a confrontation between two main
layers [of presentation] via the play -
technology opposite Greek mythology and
technology opposite the Israeli reality."

Why did you choose specifically the story of
Medea?

"It was clear to me that I wanted to use the
virtual work to express the Israeli reality.
Since I am dealing with a new language, the
theater, I wanted to use a play from the
origins of theater. Eti Citrin, the festival's
artistic director, introduced me to Dr.
Hadassah Shani, an expert in Greek theater, and
she accompanied the whole project. It took us a
while to find a common language. We read a few
Greek plays together and I felt that the story
of Medea had strong parallels to our reality
here in Israel.

"When, for example, Euripides chorus sings,
`Perhaps we could have helped the children,
perhaps we could have saved them from murder,"
it reminds me of what people say when they come
home tired, see the news about some terrible
terror attack, and say that perhaps they could
have helped, but switch to the sports
channel."

The play uses, among other things, texts from
Heiner Muller's adaptation of the play. "That
text reminded me immediately of Israel," says
Neo, "and suddenly I saw Medea as a
Palestinian." That, says Neo, is how the play's
plot was born. "Medea married an Israeli
officer, Jason, sacrificed everything for him,
turned in her brothers, and ran away from
Israel with him. Jason becomes a broker on the
American stock exchange, and they have two
children.

"When they return to Israel, Medea is exiled to
a refugee camp with her children, while Jason,
who was close friends with Creon, a general in
the Israeli army, is about to marry his
daughter. The betrayed Medea is furious and
wants to take revenge on him by murdering her
two children. But she does not murder them with
her own two hands, like in the Greek play, but
rather sends them to commit suicide attacks."

The viewer-participant finds it difficult to
follow this complicated plot.

"True. We live in a confusing era, and only
those who are willing to accept this confusion
can feel comfortable in it."

Two-dimensional characters

Are you trying to arouse identification with
Medea, who murders her children?

"The murder of children is the most appalling
act that one can conceive, but I suddenly
understood that Medea is not so distant from
all the mothers who send their children to the
army. Our country is a place in which hundreds
of children are murdered each year, with their
mothers' consent."

Still, the play justifies the decision by Medea
the Palestinian to murder her children.

"During the performance I ask the audience,
which is the equivalent of the Greek chorus, if
betrayal justifies murder. Does exile justify
murder? I reverse the events according to the
audience's decision, and each time Medea goes
back to commit that terrible act. In addition,
Jason is an Israeli who claims that he took
Medea out of a country of barbarians, and that
is how he relates to her - patronizingly and
contemptuously. He is not only Israeli but also
an American stock broker."

Why did you seat Medea in a wheelchair?

"On the most concrete level, that is the office
chair on which I sit day and night opposite the
computer. Medea is pushed into a corner and
cannot do anything: She is exiled from her
village, from her family, from her country,
from her home - it is as if she functions from
a chair for the disabled."

The virtual characters in the play do not look
developed enough.

"The technology that I am using is not the most
advanced. Even so, I am constantly developing
the characters projected on the screen and
although they will never be exactly what I
want, each day I add more movements and forms
of expression. If someone would give me a
proper budget I could use existing
technologies, but more expensive ones, that
would enable me to create much more complex
images, from a visual point of view.

"This is my first attempt with theater, and it
is the first ever attempt to do something like
this: to take a virtual three-dimensional world
on the Internet, to project it around a real
audience on a 360-degree screen, and let the
actress communicate in a live manner with the
computerized characters, some of which have
been preprogrammed and some of which are people
who have entered the Internet in real time via
the Web site."

The creator of Me Dea Ex, who calls herself Neo, sitting on the unconventional stage of her much talked-about new show.
(Yaron Kaminsky)
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