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April 21, 2014 / 21 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Stan Barouh’

Foreign Policy Of The Absurd

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

“Benedictus”Written by Motti LernerDirected by Rahaleh NassriRan March 14-29, 2009Theater J, DC JCC, 1529 16th Street NW, Washington, D.C.http://www.theaterj.org/

 

If Iranian-Israeli relations are ever to improve, will the miracle originate amongst policymakers and trickle down to the masses, or will civilians grow so tired of the conflicts that they insist upon crafting their leadership in their own pacifistic image? This question is of course well above the pay grade of a column on Jewish arts, but it is central to Motti Lerner’s “Benedictus,” in a limited run at Theater J at the Washington DC JCC.

If the issues addressed in “Benedictus” were not so real outside the theater, it would be enjoyable to watch the play as a part of the tradition of Theater of the Absurd. Absurdist Theater, of course, is all about carefully balancing comedy with horror.

 

 

Photo by Stan Barouh. Michael Kramer

 

When more and more chairs crowd Eug?ne Ionesco’s stage it is amusing, because the Old Man and Old Woman are not the sort one would meet in the street, and Alfred Jarry’s Pa Ubu, even as he murders professors of polyhedra and generally makes a nuisance of himself, forever remains cartoony.

But even though America is probably less likely to attack Iran under the Obama administration than under former President George W. Bush, the play is still heavier on the scary side and lighter on the comedy.

Lerner is hardly a newcomer to this column. An April 19, 2006, column reviewed Lerner’s “The Murder of Isaac” at Baltimore’s Centerstage, and a July 18, 2007, review covered “Pangs of the Messiah,” also at Theater J. In both plays, Lerner tackled very complicated and provocative aspects of Israeli politics and culture, and “Benedictus” continues in that trajectory.

 

 

Photo by Stan Barouh. Michael Kramer and Michael Tolaydo

 

An Israeli arms dealer named Asher Motahedeh (Michael Tolaydo) meets an Iranian politician and clergyman Ali Kermani (Michael Kramer) to try to prevent an American attack on Iran. The two meet (appropriately) in a Benedictine Church, overseen by a monk (Richard Mancini), and each tries to sway an American diplomat named Ben Martin (Conrad Feininger), who once worked in the American embassy in Tehran, but is now U.S. ambassador to Rome. Lerner explains Asher’s and Ali’s agreement to collaborate through a back story about their shared past fighting the Shah. In fact, Asher was born in Tehran and lived there until fleeing to Israel after the revolution.

In “Benedictus,” diplomacy is presented in a very unflattering light – with such intricate webs of deceit and ego that it is almost worthy of Mad magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy,” or at least Fox’s “24.” It is hard to know of course, whether policymakers actually carry out their trade in this ridiculous manner, but even at Theater J, just blocks from the White House and the State Department, the diplomacy comes off as a bit too romanticized.

 

 

Photo by Stan Barouh. Michael Kramer and Michael Tolaydo

 

But Lerner is writing a play and not a white paper on Tehran, so disbelief ought to be suspended. Tolaydo plays a masterful and powerful Asher, just as he played the rabbi Shmuel Berger in “Pangs” and Binder in “Sacrifice.” He seems to be perpetually in motion, often pacing the stage and throwing his whole body into each line he delivers.

Asher fairs better in “Benedictus” than did Shmuel and Binder – the former commits suicide and the latter is shot – while by all accounts, Israel and America are the winners and Iran the loser in Lerner’s latest play. But one of Lerner’s greatest skills is writing slippery characters, which are human rather than symbols of good or evil.

Kramer plays a convincing Ali, who manages to keep up with his Israeli and American peers for the most part, until he is dramatically abandoned due, mostly, to his inability to convince his peers that he truly stands for reforming Iran and that he actually has the power to seize control of the government and implement the changes he champions.

Yet, Ali is perhaps the Muslim equivalent of Shakespeare’s Shylock. When he asks Martin, “How do you know that nuclear weapons in our hands will be more dangerous than in yours?” the only answer the American ambassador can muster is “After 9/11 we can’t gamble anymore ” Ali receives no rebuttal of Iran’s right to join the Nuclear Club; all he is told, is that his country is not trustworthy. He later tells Asher:

“We’re probably not the right people in the right place. Braver people would have already stopped this madness. But there aren’t other people here. Only us. How can we go on living knowing that hundreds of thousands died because we were cowards? Because we didn’t trust each other when their lives were in our hands?”

 

 

Photo by Stan Barouh. Conrad Feininger and Michael Tolaydo

 

This is of course a fundamental issue of government, where a few carry the fate of the many in their palms. In the end, though, the masses often fall prey to the petty grievances and revenge of those who are supposed to represent them.

It is impossible to predict what occurs after Lerner’s play ends. One assumes that many Iranians will be killed and the ayatollahs will be overthrown. Perhaps Ali has been lying the whole time, and Asher and Ambassador Martin are correct to distrust him. But what if he really was genuine in his devotion to peace and to political reform? What if it was racism that motivated Asher and Martin to dismiss him and to condemn his people? Lerner offers no clues as to whether the play ends with justice served or with chaos; whether the play ought to be classified as comedy or tragedy.

Sometimes this feeling is quite effective. If Frank R. Stockton told us whether the princess pointed her plebian suitor toward the lady or the tiger, the story would never have been so successful. But it is hard to know what to do with “Benedictus,” which feels somehow unfinished. It seems that equally valid arguments could be made for the failure of the characters to resolve the conflict deriving from the situation being irresolvable, or from the characters’ lack of creativity and progressiveness.

And yet, somehow the unsettled feeling of not knowing whether Lerner is pessimistic or optimistic about the chances of peace also rings true. There is so much bad information circulating and such different people’s motives and perspectives on either side of the conflict that it seems completely appropriate to be left with numbness rather than the comfort of knowing what is in store.

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, D.C.

Saying Hello Once Again, To Sholom Aleichem: Theodore Bikel Revives Tevye

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

Sholom Aleichem: Laughter through TearsBy Theodore Bikel; Derek Goldman, director; Tamara Brooks and Merima Ključo, musicThrough January 18, 2009Theater J, the Washington DC JCC1529 Sixteenth Street, NW, Washingtonhttp://www.theaterj.org

 

Generally, sequels are best avoided. It should not have taken three remakes to prove that the first “Planet of the Apes” was more than enough, and the movie-going public would have been far better off without repeats of films like “Legally Blonde” and “Weekend at Bernie’s.” Therefore, seeing “Fiddler on the Roof Returns” or “Sholom Aleichem Strikes Back” on the shelf at your local movie rental shop should not inspire excitement – but in the capable hands of award-winning actor Theodore Bikel, Tevye’s return is anything but redundant. Bikel’s one-man production at the Washington DC JCC’s Theater J is so successful, because it not only looks back to the Eastern European shtetls but it finds timeless tales and lessons that still apply today.

Bikel’s world premiere of “Sholom Aleichem: Laughter through Tears,” which seamlessly blends his skills as a storyteller, dancer, singer, and actor, could have been a flop. The actor, 84, has played Tevye the milkman more than 2,000 times, and he could be easily be forgiven for developing a multiple personality disorder and believing he was Sholem Naumovich Rabinovich (1859-1916), who went by the pen name Sholom Aleichem. “In my work I deal in many things: in the memories of yesterday, the realities of today, the dreams of tomorrow,” Bikel notes at the beginning of the play. “My task is not to pretend to be someone else; it is to become that someone else. Harder to do when you portray an actual person, living or dead.”

 

 

 

Growing up, Bikel’s father used to read him Sholom Aleichem stories and plays in Yiddish every Tuesday night after dinner, so playing Tevye when he grew up was like “simply taking an old garment out of the closet, something I had not worn for a long time and, wonder of wonders, it was still a perfect fit.” Not only does the old garment fit Bikel perfectly, but Sholom Aleichem’s writing – however dated the statements are in their cultural and political references, like: “Tevye is not a woman, Tevye can restrain himself”- still rings true.

“I came to America because I thought this is the one place where Jews can have a life. But I was not prepared for what I found,” says Bikel as Sholom Aleichem. Instead of flowing milk and honey and streets paved with gold, Sholom Aleichem found tenements, diseases, and poverty when he arrived in New York. “Not much different from the old country you might think, but there is a big difference. Over there the oppressors were always the ‘Others,’ the nobles, and the Czar’s people. Here in America Jews are scrambling to make a meager living and most of the people who oppress – the landlords, the owners of shirt factories – are Jews, that’s the difference.” As headlines about Bernard Madoff continue to dominate the news, it is clear that a lack of Jewish loyalty in the new world remains a problem, even a century later.

 

 

 

Sholom Aleichem himself, one can imagine, would be thrilled with Bikel’s oscillation between sobering stories and observations and humorous tales. “Believe me, if you spent just one day in kheder, you would never forget,” Bikel declares before launching into a story about the teacher – a rabbi “whose only function is to teach children and whose only educational technique consists of whipping.” To a businessman who has just seen an important deal fall through, Bikel jokes, “What are you so worried about? Relax, G-d will help. And if he doesn’t, you have an uncle in America.” And perhaps the mama of all one-liners: “I guarantee you, go through world music, Russian, French, German, Greek – nowhere except in a Jewish song will you ever hear a mention of hemorrhoids.”

Beyond the jokes and the Yiddish songs, the early part of the play is a tease. The viewer knows Tevye is coming, but he makes a very late appearance, perhaps because of his “miserable excuse for a horse,” a “wretched beast” who moves when Tevye wants to pray and won’t budge when he bids it go. “When troubles descend on Tevye, they never come singly,” Bikel announces as Tevye, as he updates the audience on Tevye’s new troubles – more poverty, an apparent suicide, a profitable shidduch that goes bankrupt. Bikel cannot resist a bit of postmodern humor. “Maybe other people, too, will one day try their hand at giving my milkman a place on the stage. They might even make Tevye sing and dance, G-d forbid. No, they wouldn’t do that, would they?” he asks. “That would reduce Anatevka, paint it smaller, make it less than I intended. I would then become like the man whose leg was cut off and who keeps feeling for it in the place where the leg used to be.”

 

 

Theodore Bikel premieres his one-man show at Theater J.  All photos by Stan Barouh.

The question whether Broadway versions of “Fiddler on the Roof,” with their distinctly American flavor of nostalgia, trivialize shtetl life, is obviously subject to debate. Tevye has perhaps become the Jewish everyman that Willy Loman always wanted to be; attention has been paid. But the irony of the man who has all but become Tevye, impersonating the man who conceived Tevye, while calling into question the theatrical portrayal of Tevye, makes Bikel’s play is a must-see not only for what the actor has to say about Tevye, but for the mark Tevye has made on the actor.

Bikel tells of Sholom Aleichem’s meeting with Mark Twain – “Neither of us uses his real name; my nom de plume means hello, and his measures the depth of a river” – in which Sholom Aleichem told Twain, “some people have the temerity – our word for it is chutzpah – to call me the Yiddish Mark Twain!” Twain replied, “They are wrong,” he said. “I am the American Sholom Aleichem!” Hopefully Bikel will forgive the chutzpah in the not inappropriate comparison of the poignancy and brilliance of “Sholom Aleichem: Laughter through Tears” to another actor who is in his 80s and who has become Mark Twain in his own plays, Harold Rowe “Hal” Holbrook, Jr.

For more information about Theodore Bikel, visit his website at http://www.bikel.com/.

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, and resides in Washington, D.C.

A Regal Silhouette: King David The Musical

Wednesday, June 4th, 2008


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


www.theaterj.org, tickets: (800) 494-TIXS


 


 


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 mwecker@gmail.com. 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. 

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/a-regal-silhouette-king-david-the-musical/2008/06/04/

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