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.