Jew Review: ‘Operation: Immigration’ at MJTC

In a time when distraction from both the pandemic and our chaotic political scene is in high demand and low supply, Operation: Immigration is a hopeful reflection of our reality and a welcome reminder that diverse experiences enrich our communities. The one-man show was written last year for the Minnesota Fringe Festival and is now expanded and presented as a fabulous and thoughtful film by the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company

In the 70-minute production, playwright and star Avi Aharoni serves as family archeologist, deftly excavating and examining complicated family history as he tracks his father’s immigration story from Iran to Israel to the U.S. He concurrently seeks answers about his own identity and belonging, grapples with society’s prejudices, and contemplates the tragedies and victories that come from the unpredictability of lives lived fully.

Last year’s audiences at the Fringe Festival received the grounding benefits of theatre-going rituals, a full house of open-minded audience members, and shared air with Aharoni’s infectious energy. Now, seven months into a pandemic that has halted live performance for the foreseeable future, it was a pleasure to invite this story into my home and onto the living room TV screen that, these days, gives me more bad news than good. It’s not the same as live theatre, and, as a professional director and actor myself, I yearn for the little rituals that separate a night at the theatre from the rest of my ordinary day. However, Aharoni’s performance remains vital, immediate, and absorbing. He gracefully (and musically!) takes on the challenge of making vulnerable connections with an audience he cannot sense. In some of my favorite moments, he breaks the fourth wall and impishly reminds the viewer that, even in this new format, he is taking care of them and their experience every step of the way. 

When I spoke with him for Jewfolk’s J•Cation last week, Aharoni cited an array of convention-breaking stand-up comedians as his inspirations. Artists and performers like John Leguizamo, Hannah Gadsby, Mike Birbiglia, and Bo Burnham all have blended their brands of comedy with personal storytelling to create new forms of performance art. It’s exciting to watch Operation: Immigration evolve and to see the ways that the extra development, longer runtime, and film format all gave Aharoni and his collaborators more freedom to creatively subvert expectations. Clever film tricks, which I won’t spoil, are used to great effect as tools of emphasis and imagination. 

A lot of virtual theatre that has been produced since COVID arrived in the States has felt like too little too late, with theatres and independent artists deciding to create anything that might fill the void or scratch the theatre itch. Much of it falls short. Operation: Immigration successfully straddles the mediums, having been initially conceived as a theatre piece and then reworked for film. It is not simply a play on video. In some (rare) respects, the COVID-safe production restrictions impede the creative product. The film was shot in someone’s backyard, but there is no clear exploration of the connection or tension between the suburban lawn and patio we see and the Middle Eastern desert origins that Aharoni describes. In other moments, the film soars because it accomplishes what we cannot in the theatre and gives every viewer the same angle for a dramatic reveal, a striking light cue, or a close-up during the particularly stark and emotional finale. 

Aharoni and his collaborators, especially director Robert Dorfman who has been with the project since the Fringe production last year, have come together to offer a vivid piece that is both theatre and film, comedy and drama, musical parody and biting cultural analysis. The context of this year, including the Black Lives Matter movement and the subsequent unrest, provides an even more powerful backdrop for Aharoni’s central question, “am I white or am I [a person of color]?” Aharoni may not be any closer to answering his question, but hopefully, his audiences are ever more equipped to grapple with him and engage in these complex examinations of oppression and identity in our communities.

The encore presentation of ‘Operation: Immigration’ runs from Dec. 10-13, 2020. Tickets for this online, streaming, pay-per-view production are available here.