The Currency of Belief: Fringe Show Confronts Prayer

“Currency of Belief.” Photo courtesy: Fringe Arts

In a few weeks, Jews worldwide will crowd synagogues to welcome the new year, shaking off tallit, dusty from closets, but still smelling just like Grandpa.

Recently in Philadelphia, a one-woman show at the Fringe Festival used the prayer shawl in a different way. The performer wound it around her head, swung with it on a trapeze, and threw it on the floor.

“The Currency of Belief: Trapeze and Spiritual Comedy” had a surprisingly small amount of trapeze, a little comedy, and a lot of spirituality. Not wholly bad or good, Noa Schnitzer’s solo show at Christ Church Neighborhood House was a strange 50-minute experience.

Rather than an orderly bedtime story, “The Currency of Belief” was a night of dreams, each blending oddly into one another. Schnitzer played multiple characters, from the stooping MC to a snail that could sense thoughts, in a series of disconnected dances, trapeze performances, and shadow puppetry. Interactive throughout, she encouraged the audience to raise their pinkies to show their bodies were warmed up, and to sing a prayer in parts with her.

Whether Schnitzer was midair or on the ground, every piece of the show concerned prayer – what it means to pray, how exactly one prays, and who is allowed to pray.

“Prayer is the currency of belief,” Schnitzer said in the performance, using the same words as in the title. “In prayer, we can give thanks for what is and plant seeds for who we want to be.”

External restrictions on prayer seemed to interest Schnitzer, creator of the work with director Deanna Fleysher. One example was the shadow puppetry, during which Schnitzer narrated the story of an illiterate shepherd. Instead of reading the prayers in synagogue, he decides to play a flute, which the congregation criticizes for its strangeness. But the rabbi calls the shepherd’s prayer the most honest of them all.

In addition to dealing with methods of prayer, “The Currency of Belief” briefly addressed gender roles in Jewish religious practice. Along with the symbolism of a woman using the tallit, a garment traditionally for males, the show also featured a prayer meant only for men to sing, but which Schnitzer taught to the audience.

In a Fringe Fest interview, Schnitzer said that even after she “stopped practicing” Orthodox tradition at the age of 18, old prayers popped into her head and wouldn’t leave. Her show was not so different.

It was not exactly the must-see of the Fringe’s many event opportunities. It was often hard to understand how scenes cohered or who her characters were. The slow-voiced MC only gained a name near the end of the show, when Schnitzer appeared to take her final bow, but really got into a multipersonality argument with the MC and herself. Yes, really.

However weird and mysterious, the tune of “The Currency of Belief” will stick in the mind. The trapeze work was beautiful, especially in the intense first episode, in which Schnitzer swaddled the tallit around her face and flipped herself blindly over a trapeze bar. It brought back some sort of primal awe at flight with her  twisting and slithering securely up in the air. Too bad it took 30 more minutes to see her up there again.

The frequent interactions with the tallit were fascinating. Schnitzer wrote in the program that it “was an object used by the other. It was not offered as part of my [Orthodox] practice.” Often in the show, her actions toward the traditional cloth were highly emotional, showing a mix of anger and longing. She kicked it, wrapped it around her head, and reached desperately for it from the trapeze after letting it go from about twenty feet high.

The show was unsettling and hard to understand. Much of the meaning gleaned from “The Currency of Belief” took hours to gather. But prayer isn’t always easy.


As The Matzo Ball Turns is Turning Out at the Fringe Festival

The Philadelphia Fringe Festival is back for another year of experimental performances around the city. Of the dozens of comedies, dramas and tragedies, one musical at the Independence Seaport Museum might affirm your belief in following your dreams — and working part-time at a deli.

Running Sept. 7-10, “As The Matzo Ball Turns” follows a Hollywood story onstage, but has plenty of twists and turns behind the scenes.

Jozef Rothstein (played by Sebastian Paff) embodies the “aspiring” in aspiring actor. He dips his spoon into the chicken soup of Hollywood and just can’t seem to get a taste, especially with the ominous Hollywood Machine blocking his path. While he’s fighting for his shot at the screen, he works at a well-known Los Angeles deli and logs hours at an acting studio with his pal Mary (played by Joanna Ferbrache).

“We see the struggle of falling in love, trying to find his purpose, and I think it really speaks to everyone,” said Sara Viteri, producer and co-director. “No matter what career path you’re choosing, I think we’re all trying to find our place in the sun.”

[Read more…]

Theater Chat: Yael Rasooly

— by Hannah Lee

I met Yael Rasooly through her creative work, when she performed “Paper Cut” at the Philly Fringe Festival.  In my interview with her, I learned that she’d been given the “Award for Excellence for a Solo Show,” by the New York Fringe Festival, so she was invited for five additional encore performances, before heading to France.  It was reviewed in the New York Times:

one of those artfully quirky solo performances that make the New York International Fringe Festival worth checking out.

The Philly Fringe Festival advertised it:

A lonely secretary escapes into a world of daydreams where she is a glamorous 1940’s movie star.  Black-and-white cinema is transformed to the universe of paper cut-outs and object theater, creating a tension that is absurb, painful, and humorous.

More after the jump.

Staged in a spare, un-air-conditioned space at the multi-purpose Media Bureau Networks in the Northern Liberties neighborhood, “Paper Cut” was delightfully different from mainstream theater, from its creator and solo performer sharpening pencils while waiting for audience members to its mixture of theatrical techniques of puppetry, pop-up books, and film noire mood lighting.   In case you catch the show elsewhere, it is suitable for a general family audience, albeit with a fatal scene with a tea bag.

The show started as a 25-minute piece for the Jerusalem International Puppetry Festival.  She’d met her co-writer, Lior Lerman, while both were students at the School of Visual Arts in Jerusalem.  Rasooly’s strengths were in directing and puppetry while Lerman’s talent was as video artist and graphic designer, and also, “amazing writer.”  After graduation in 2007, Rasooly was working in Europe where she longed to create a big production that would pay homage to film noire and the acclaimed director of suspense and psychological thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock.  She admired the esthetic, the dramatic story lines but she also wanted to focus on the shift from the “sweet and fun” to the dark.  However, there was no funding for big productions and she had no rehearsal studio or workshop.

While researching her dream, she started collecting images and books about the 1930’s movie stars.  Rasooly was trained in classical singing — liturgical music and opera — and later discovered jazz of the early period.  She is “very connected to this time period.”  She then proceeded to make a model of the stage as part of her portfolio.  Around this time, she attended a workshop where the participants were required to stage a show with only one-hour’s preparation.  She had never worked with paper before, but it was a way to work with “dialogue in the language of cinema in a low-tech way.”  She asked herself, “How to do a long shot (a film-making term about placement of a figure or object within its surroundings)?  What are the many abuses for paper?”  The premiere of the full-length version was in Fall of 2010 at the International Adult Puppetry Festival of Pecs, Hungary, but Rasooly is constantly changing it.  “The more I play with it, the more I understand the show” and unexpected things still come out.  The song cycle in which Rasooly showed her vocal gifts was added after several tours when she felt the show “needed a moment of emotional heft, a kick” that would offer a “glimpse into this woman’s [psyche] about the loss she’s coming to terms with.”  Rasooly asked herself, “What happens when fantasy meets with reality?”

“Paper Cut” was created in English and is performed that way, even in Israel.  Rasooly sought out her English-speaking actor friends to record the voices of the other characters not seen on stage.  Her next tour will be in France for the premiere of her show in French (not a native tongue) and she credits her skill in mimicry to her classical music training.  

She feared music limiting her, as she is basically a storyteller and she wanted to create her own story.  An early inspiration was Julie Taymor, the American director of theater, opera, and film.  Taymor had gone to Paris to study with L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq and there became exposed to mime.   Her muse managed to balance “an individual voice but tap into the mainstream.”   Now, when Rasooly is approached by neophytes, as she was at the New York Fringe Festival, she advises them to save their money and go study in Europe, where there is a tradition of puppetry, a multitude of festivals, and funding more plentiful than elsewhere.  Rasooly herself discovered the breadth of puppetry when, at age 19, she spent 10 days at the Festival Mondial des Théâtres de Marionnettes in Charleville-Mézières, France and met the grand masters there.

Outside of Europe, people have a limited view of puppetry.  However, during her stay in Philadelphia, she got to lecture at the University of the Arts and Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA, courtesy of the energetic promotion of Deborah Baer Mozes, the cultural attaché of the Israeli Consulate, which co-sponsored Rasooly’s local performances along with Theatre Ariel and Media Bureau Networks.  Her audience was “so attentive and so smart.”  When Rasooly asked the students what did they know about puppetry, they were able to cite Avenue Q, Lion King, and War Horse – all Broadway audience pleasers — but one person was also able to name the incredible puppetry scene (in the classic marionette style) from the 1999 film, Being John Malkovich.  Learning about puppetry for the first time is like “discovering modern dance” after knowing only ballet.

Rasooly had also studied theater design in London and she fretted that so many talented artists are never given “the chance to input their own language.”  She despaired that “it would take a miracle to get her own voice.” Puppetry involves working under difficult conditions but the puppeteer is free and independent and Rasooly can travel with her own creations.  Touring the world, she gets to meet many artists and attend many performances.  She herself is most interested in the modern approach in which the puppeteer interacts with the audience and is not confined to the background, dressed in black.

Rasooly claimed she was very fortunate to perform in Philadelphia — “the most beautiful experience” — and she loved the venue, Benjamin Barnett’s multi-storied and multi-functional studio space.  For “Paper Cut,” they transformed the cavernous first floor into an intimate space, more suitable for Rasooly’s solo show.  (Although, she’s also slated to perform before an audience of 200-300 in India next February.)  Writing for herself means “never having to sit by a phone and wait to be casted.”  Performing solo is just fine with Rasooly, who delights in not having to “round up 15 actors for King Lear,”  and she can carry all of her props in one suitcase.

How has being Israeli helped form her artistic self?  Her family had temporarily relocated to Toronto for 3-1/2 years where it was a great shock because she knew no English and the snow was higher than her own self.  But, she was privileged to attend for one year, the Claude Watson School for the Arts, where half the day was spent on academic subjects and the remaining time was free for the creative arts.  When Rasooly’s family returned to Israel, it was another traumatic experience, for she was ten and fluent in English, but unable to read in Hebrew.  For many years, she was the polite Canadian, who did not fit in. This dual reality has remained with her, denying her of a sense of home.  Rasooly has finally come to terms with living in Israel and to even appreciate it, especially once she discovered the School of Visual Theater where she spent four wonderful years.  Israel is where her family and friends are and there is a very vibrant fringe scene there and some amazing creativity.  However, she also realized early on that she cannot survive in Israel financially —  with two standing shows a month, she still only breaks even — so she goes willingly on tours.

Of the four siblings, Rasooly’s sister is also a professional artist; Maya Rasooly lives in Germany where she has a successful career as a violist.  Her elder brother is in business in China and her younger brother is now serving his Army stint.  Both of her parents are physicians who have a talent for art.  Her father, whose rabbinical ancestors lived in Iraq, plays the violin and her mother, also raised secular but of Orthodox descent, is a pianist and a painter.  They encouraged Rasooly to study medicine.  They were afraid of a life in the arts and when Rasooly finished school, she also didn’t know what the future would hold for her.  But, they’d believed in her by investing in her education.  Is her new success reassuring to her family?  A year ago, she started presenting herself with more confidence and that has helped.  After “being worried for a very long time,” she is now booked for a very long time.  She says it’s important not to be swayed by the desire to be successful, that it’s better “to have the pleasure of creation.”