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David in Shadow and Light
Libretto by Yehuda Hyman;
Music by Daniel Hoffman;
Directed by Nick Olcott
Running now through June 22, 2008
Washington DC JCC Theater J
Light and shadow typically assume moral implications in literature, where light is often divine and dark symbolizes the unknown and the scary. In Greek mythology, the dead who could afford it, bribed Charon to take them across the River Styx to Hades, while those who could not, hovered around the river for eternity as “shades”. Plato saw this imperfect world as silhouettes projected on the walls of a dark cave. Film noirs build drama in scenes that are dark and perpetually rainy, while “The Lion King” turned to a dark, shadowy elephant graveyard as the place of supreme chaos and evil.
“David in Shadow and Light”, the current play at Theater J at the Washington DC JCC, builds upon the charged metaphors of light and dark with a new twist. In the play, the gaps between film frames serve as a metaphor for the life of King David. If the information about David’s life in the Bible is the series of film frames, the space between frames “contain” the many details the Bible could have provided but did not – the set of emotions, thoughts, and other actions that the play improvises upon.
The cast of David in Shadow and Light. Photo by Stan Barouh, courtesy of Theater J.
In an adaptation of the famous “RENT” song, “Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes. How do you measure, measure a year?” the characters of “David in Shadow and Light” lay out this methodology early on in a song: “Twenty-four frames per second of life/ An even division of shadow and light/ A vision projected on canvas of white/ In 24 frames per second of life.” In between frames, so the song continues, “is the moment between/ Where the vision goes dark to reveal the unseen/ Where the heart has to choose how to play out the scene/ In the moment between every moment between.”
The frames come from a projector upon which Archangel Metatron (Donna Migliaccio) shows the 930-year-old, wheelchair-ridden and dejected Adam (Norman Aronovic) how the future will unfold. Metatron shows Noah, Sarah, Ishmael, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Miriam, Samson, Shakespeare, Napoleon, Einstein, Martin Luther King, and Kennedy. But as she tries to fast forward past the young David, who is only destined to live a matter of hours, Adam insists that Metatron stop the reel:
“I wanna see the baby. The one with the red cheeks,” he demands. “Ah ah look at him see how he shines so bright. His heart is fire – holy light.” Though she has been sent to cheer Adam up, Metatron agrees to euthanize him and helps him transfer his final 70 years to King David.
Donna Migliaccio (Metatron) and Norman Aronovic (Adam). Photo by Stan Barouh, courtesy of Theater J.
In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus is accompanied throughout his series of journeys by his guardian angel: the “gray-eyed goddess” of wisdom, Athena. In “David in Shadow and Light,” King David (Matt Pearson) has the benefit of two protectors in Adam and Metatron, who try to defend him, even as he sins and fights with King Saul (Bobby Smith) and Michal (Carolyn Agan). Still, viewers know that David will ultimately have too much blood on his hands to build the Temple, and he will die unhappy for his inability to achieve this dream, just as Moses did when he only managed to see Israel from the distant peak of Mount Nebo.
Where most plays that address biblical topics deal in clichés and very loose allegiance to the text, “David in Shadow and Light” must be commended for its careful study of Jewish scripture and commentaries. Hyman does invoke poetic license at various points in the narrative, but he proves himself to be such a diligent student of scripture that these departures appear to be conscious decisions rather than ones bred from ignorance.
The basic storyline is based on tradition. According to the Zohar (Part 1, page 91b), God showed Adam how history would unfold, so Adam, who was supposed to live until 1,000, donated his final 70 years to David. The Zohar does not mention any angel, but the Yalkut Shimoni (Bereishit 41) does include Metatron in the story. In the Yalkut, Adam asks God for permission to give David the 70 years, and God agrees. Adam then writes up a contract (which perhaps inspires the contract Faust proposes to Mephistopheles in Goethe’s “Faust”), which he, God, and Metatron sign. Metatron is viewed as a protector of the Jews, and the name (which is not feminine in scripture) might mean “messenger.”
Matthew Anderson, Matt Pearson (King David), and Lawrence Redmond. Photo by Stan Barouh, courtesy of Theater J.
The play casts Goliath (Russell Sunday) as a punk rocker, with a Mohawk, a lot of spikes, and tight leather pants. This, of course, does not appear in the Bible, but a punk rocker with a serious attitude problem makes sense, in light of the biblical tale of Goliath trash-talking the Jewish soldiers in Samuel 1:17, “Why have you come out to battle? Am I not the Philistine and you the servants of Saul? Choose for yourselves a man, and let him come down to me.” He later curses David’s God and tells him, “Come to me, and I will give your body to birds of the air and to the beasts of the field.”
Even if the giant’s attire is more contemporary than biblical, the play does follow the Babylonian Talmud in its decision to have Goliath haunt David after he is beheaded and insist he is David’s relative. Tractate Sotah (page 42b), which responds to the moment in the Book of Ruth where Orpah kisses Naomi goodbye while Ruth, clinging to her, states, “Let the descendents of the one who kissed (‘neshukah‘) fall in battle to the sons of the one who remained (‘devukah‘).” The Talmud is of course referring to David and Goliath.
Other parts of the script depart from the biblical narrative. The Bible, for instance, makes no mention of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah being infertile (in the play David learns this before sending Uriah to his death), and in the play Samuel the prophet discovers David in the field shepherding sheep and tending to each one’s individual needs before anointing him king, whereas in the Bible (Samuel 1:16) Samuel approaches Jesse (Yishai), who parades all his seven sons (including Eliav, Avinadav, and Shammah) before the prophet. Jesse only presents David reluctantly when every other option had been exhausted.
“David in Shadow and Light” also employs some innovative moves from a lighting and set design perspective. For most of the play, the foreground and the background are separated by a screen, upon which many of the violent scenes are projected in silhouette. The projected shadows sometimes appear playful like a puppet show, and other times downright frightening, as when military leaders who address crowds cast imposing shadows that evoke Cold War propaganda films.
Contemporary punk and rock aspects aside, the royal figures in the play feel very Egyptian. The set is otherwise minimalist, with only Adam’s wheelchair, a director’s chair and the projector for Metatron, and occasional thrones and open doorways leading to hell (for Goliath) and heaven (for everyone else). The play also features a “non-traditional casting” move of “a David of color: a Tiger Woods-like natural phenomenon,” or “the Barack Obama of the Bible,” as Ari Roth, artistic director of Theater J states in the press release.
These new approaches to the biblical narrative left this reviewer rethinking the story of David and its relevance today. But sometimes, too many variations on a text yield a confusing story that overextends itself. “David in Shadow and Light” might approach that murky effect, but it is hard to criticize a play that approaches an iconic story that has been explored so often and so similarly from such a fresh perspective.
Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.
I am very grateful to my father, Rabbi Mordechai Wecker, for his assistance tracking down the Hebrew sources quoted in this article.