Theater Chat: Stars of David

— by Hannah Lee

I love listening to authors and artists talk about the creative process, so I’d looked forward to a lunch-and-talk program on Wednesday at the Gershman Y about Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish, which premiered at the Suzanne Roberts Theater on October 17th. Hurricane Sandy kept Abigail Pogrebin, its creator, from attending, but Warren Hoffman, Senior Director of Programming, ably undertook the role of interviewer for two notable Jews: Sharon Pinkenson, Executive Director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, and Ivy Barsky, the new Director and CEO of the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH). Then we went across the street and watched an afternoon show.

More after the jump.
Under Pinkenson’s guidance, the Greater Philadelphia Film Office brought the city revenues of $3.5 billion dollars, up from $2.1 million dollars from local movie production (statistics from interview in Philly Style Magazine). Her staff of six consists of only one other Jew, but all of her employees are taught to speak Yiddish, “starting with the ‘fa’ words,” farpatshket (messed up, sloppy), fartshadet (surprised, stunned), and fartutst (confused). The majority of her childhood was spent in Levittown, so she was comfortable with a heterogenous population and she loved arguing with the Rabbi. As a single mother, she was welcomed by Rodelph Shalom, who allowed her to pay on a sliding scale and she recalls with pride the day she was able to pay dues in full. Married for 27 years to her second husband, Joe Weiss, chairman of Electronic Ink, and the grandmother of three, she beguiled Weiss to attend Rodelph Shalom, where “the Shema is optional.”

Barsky grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where every one of her neighbors voted for George McGovern, who nevertheless lost the presidential election in 1972 to Richard Nixon. Her family was not observant, but she became “a professional Jew” through the meanderings of her career– from graduate studies in Art History at the University of Pennsylvania to almost 15 years as deputy director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan. This background gives her an important perspective on the museum’s mission, as an educational institution for those without a strong Jewish foundation.

A summa cum laude graduate of Yale University and the daughter of Letty Cottin Pogrebin (the co-founder of Ms. Magazine), Pogrebin published her book, Stars of David, in 2005 (by Doubleday) in which she turned own confusion about her identity as a Jew into an ad-hoc sociological study, reaching out to prominent Jews. The musical production has a small cast of five– Nancy Balbirer as Narrator; Alex Brightman, Joanna Glushak, Brad Oscar, and Donna Vivino– who channel the spirit of a cross-section of influential Jews from Kenneth Cole to Norman Lear to Gloria Steinman.

My two favorite numbers were both by Vivino, in which she sang of the alienation felt by “Ruth Bader Ginsburg” in being excluded from the minyan for reciting Kaddish after the death of her mother (the day before her graduation from high school) and the way “Fran Drescher” dealt with enduring ethnic stereotyping in her acting career. Other numbers were not as effective as when “Edgar Bronfman,” prompted by his 5-year-old granddaughter’s question, “Who is God,” committed himself to the study of Talmud. An uplifting liberal message is offered by “Tony Kushner” who noted being Jewish (and being persecuted for it) was good practice for being gay and that the Jewish people have a big enough house with a room for everyone.

With our township schools closed from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I brought along my teen daughter along and we were both surprised that she enjoyed herself! Stars of David will play through November 18th; tickets may be ordered through The Philadelphia Theatre Company.

Why I Love Summer Stage

— by Hannah Lee

It’s been 10 wonderful summers for my girls at Upper Darby’s Summer Stage, the drama camp alma mater of Tina Fey which she reminisced fondly in her memoir, Bossypants.  My girls have taken separate paths, one behind the scenes — handling lights, sound, props, costumes — and one on stage.  Summer Stage has left its mark and they’re the better for it.  It’s now my younger daughter’s final summer and I write to say farewell.  

More after the jump.

Bryn Bookstaver and her buddy Reggie prepare for their roles in Annie, Jr. (Photo by Dan Luner)

Now in its 37th year, Summer Stage continues to delight audiences throughout greater Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley.  Last October, its founder and executive and artistic director, Harry Dietzler, was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual Barrymore Awards for excellence in theater.  Who would have foretold in 1975 that a 20-year-old music major at Temple University would change the horizon of musical theater in greater Philadelphia so profoundly?

Each summer, more than 30,000 audience members attend almost 40 performances, consisting of six children’s musicals, one Main Stage musical for adult audiences, a dance troupe, a cabaret, and one-act productions.  It’s still an affordable way to experience live theater — cheaper than the price of movie tickets! — with up to 100 talented teens on stage, singing and dancing up a storm.  Its signature song, “Magic Up Our Sleeve,” gives me goose bumps each time they sing before the lights go down.  Alumni in the audience sing along unabashedly at each performance.

The children’s theater program engages 750 teens, aged 13-17, in learning skills that can sustain them throughout life, not just in specific tasks such as hanging lights and creating costumes, but also lessons in how to work hard, work with others, and project one’s ideas.  Summer Stage was voted “Best Theater Group in Philadelphia” for four consecutive years on the MYPHL17 Hot List, voted by regular Philadelphians.

Seating 1,650, the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center on the campus of Upper Darby High School provides a wonderful, professional-grade venue for these lessons.  It employs 100 professionals to teach and guide the campers.  When I asked Mr. Dietzler about budgetary cuts from the township, he said that the program brings in enough revenue from ticket sales and sponsorship to offset any cuts.

For some years, they experimented with flying apparatus for shows such as Aladdin and Peter Pan, but I’m happy that they’ve returned to earth.  Again this year, a real dog will appear as Sandy in the production of Annie, Jr.  In the recent production of Seussical, Jr., the toddler son of the director, Dawn Morningstar — I love her name! — had a cameo role as the young creature hatched by Horton the Elephant.

A shout-out to Mama Moscotti, Office Manager/Nurse Extraordinaire.  Farewell and my best wishes for a strong season, Summer Stage!

The remaining children’s shows this season are: Annie, Jr., How I Became a Pirate (based on the children’s book of the same name in its local premiere), and A Disney Spectacular featuring princesses, heroes, and villains.  The Main Stage show, Hairspray, features actors aged 17-25.  For show times and tickets, log onto their website.

Talkback on “Slaying the Dragon”

— by Hannah Lee

Teshuvah (repentance) is a prominent Jewish value, but what happens when a high Ku Klux Klan high official renounces his life?  The world premiere of the opera, Slaying the Dragon, was heralded by a Q&A session with a panel consisting of: Ellen Frankel, the librettist and managing director of Center City Opera Theater; Kathryn Watterson, author of Not by the Sword: How a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman on which the opera is based; and Bob Wolfson, Associate National Director of Regional Operations for the Anti-Defamation League and formerly the local ADL officer in charge of Lincoln, Nebraska where the events took place.  The panel discussion took place on Sunday, June 3 at the National Museum of American Jewish History.

More after the jump.

In her 1995 book, Watterson, a professor in the English Department of the University of Pennsylvania, chronicled the stranger-than-fiction narrative of Larry Trapp, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan’s Lincoln chapter who had a change of heart, renounced his life of hatred and violence, and embraced Judaism.  

A double amputee and blind from the complications of diabetes, Trapp — a black-sheep, distant relation of the von Trapp family singers of The Sound of Music fame —  was inspired by the love and kindness offered by Michael and Julie Weisser.  

A remarkable couple, Michael Weisser was then cantor and spiritual leader of the Reform Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, one of two synagogues in Lincoln, and Julie was herself a convert to Judaism.  Together they were raising five children, and they all welcomed Trapp into their home — with the teen sisters giving up their own room — and nursed him while he was dying from his illness.  When Trapp died at age 42, he was buried in the Jewish cemetery there.

There are still people in the Jewish community in Lincoln who doubt Trapp’s sincerity in his transformation.  Wolfson recounted the “surreal feeling” he had when Trapp, who’d previously threatened his family, rolled up to the ADL office in his wheelchair and asked to give Wolfson a hug.  This was the guy that he had to warn his children against, and the reason they had to monitor the in-coming mail to the house.  

Wolfson thinks it was because the Angel of Death was at his back that Trapp personally apologized to every person he’d hurt in his campaign of hate.  However, it took courage to leave the KKK, because it was a public betrayal — by a Grand Dragon, no less!  The opera deviates from reality in that Trapp is portrayed as vulnerable, being mocked by his fellow Klansmen for his physical disabilities.  In actuality, he was a strong leader and was admired by his Klan, despite his inability to physically carry out the acts of evil and spite that he advocated.

Michael Weisser, now a rabbi in Flushing, New York, was a strong believer in redemption — he’d had his own tragedy to overcome.  Neither he nor his wife were punitive people; their preferred motto was: “Educate, not punish.”  When two college boys were on trial in Lincoln for defacing his synagogue, Weisser offered to lead educational classes for them both in lieu of jail time.  Watterson pointed out that society has surely gained more by the time these misguided youth spent at Weisser’s side than in prison.

Watterson noted that white supremacists are under-developed emotionally.  So much energy is expended on projecting hate that there is no room for personal growth.  Wolfson said that people often prefer to think of these people as “nuts.”  “Some are, but not all are so.”  Larry Trapp was not intellectually impaired, he said, but it is harder to contemplate rational people who hate obsessively.

Could what had happened in Lincoln happen here?  Hatred can happen anywhere.  Wolfson said that Weisser was a radical, whose Reform temple had lost members.  The conservative Jewish community looked askance at him, whom he would describes as “to the left, politically, of Mao Zedong,” the late Communist dictator of China.  

The Jews of Lincoln were Zionist and middle-of-the-road politically and they couldn’t understand Weisser who believed in the prophet-to-the-nation philosophy of Reform Judaism, stressing tikkun olam (repairing the world) and protesting injustice.  However, Weisser built up his congregation and brought life to the synagogue.

Watterson said that she focused on Trapp’s life as a white supremacist, because it was so similar to that of Timothy McVeigh, the man who detonated a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people and injuring more than 800 people, the deadliest act of terrorism within the United States prior to the September 11 attacks in 2001.

Frankel, the librettist, said that the composer, Michael Ching, urged her to make Larry Trapp and Michael and Julie Weisser–  re-named Grand Dragon Jerry Krieg and Rabbi Nathan and Vera Goodman in the opera — less black-and-white evil and goodness incarnate.  He wanted her to bring the characters closer together and find the commonality in them.

Are we in a post-racial world?  Wolfson noted that the world has moved to the right in recent times, citing hate crimes in France, Greece, and the United States. Economic hardship and instability bring out the worst in human nature.  However, liberal-minded people tend not to regard this evidence of persistent racism as a motivation to keep the fight against bigotry at the top of their social action agenda, preferring to think that the issue has been resolved.

It’s most important, Watterson urged, “to get to know each other, beyond our comfort zone, and acknowledge each other’s humanity.”  She noted the spill-over of hate words into general society (e.g., “femini-Nazis”) and the public shaming and blaming tolerated in our communities.  We should foster more creativity, said she, not demonize “people of color.”

Herbert Levine, Frankel’s husband, asked from the audience about how the KKK was able to get away with its open acts of violence?  Where were the police, the FBI?  Wolfson said that in the case of the Asian immigrant community, the Laotian leadership told the police to let them handle acts of violence against their community in their own way.  Thus, after their community center was targeted by “Operation Gooks,” defaced and destroyed by Trapp’s minions, it was re-built by the Asian community anew, but this time behind barbed-wire fencing and patrolled by armed guards.

How strong is the KKK nowadays?  Watterson said they’re very organized — “the movement inspires action.”  One aborted example: Trapp himself had planned on assassinating Jesse Jackson, the black civil rights activist and Baptist minister, figuring that, in his weheelchair, he could get close to his targeted victim.  

Of the white supremacists groups, White Aryan Nation is more powerful, but there are local KKK groups in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  Wolfson pointed out that the Internet allows these groups to organize more efficiently, not announcing a public rally until “12 minutes before” — with the leaders texting one another — to avoid police intervention.  The ADL (and the FBI) used to infiltrate these groups, but they can now avoid unwanted scrutiny more easily.  Wolfson noted that the biggest problem is the lone wolf, one who operates outside of group sanctions.  Frankel added that the Philly chapter of ADL has a full-time staffer who monitors the communication of hate groups and who maintains an ongoing dialogue with the FBI.

Evening performances of Slaying the Dragon will take place on June 14 and 16, with a 2 pm final show on June 17  at the Helen Corning Warden Theater at the Academy of Vocal Arts, on 1920 Spruce Street.   Limited  seating is available.  For tickets, visit


Theater Chat: Travelling Light

— by Hannah Lee

If you’ve ever wanted a theater vacation in London, as I have, you may find consolation in the telecast offerings at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute.  Yesterday, I watched a broadcast of a current production, Travelling Light, now playing at the National Theatre on the South Bank of London.  The show was followed by a talkback with the playwright Nicholas Wright, the director Nicholas Hytner, and the film critic Jason Solomons.

More after the jump.
In an Academy Award season dominated by films that honor cinema’s glorious past such as Martin Scorcese’s Hugo (winning five technical awards) and Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist (winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Score, and Best Costume Design), Travelling Light may seem redundant, but Nicholas Hytner said that themes come in cycles, and neither he nor Nicholas Wright knew that his colleagues were working on Hugo and The Artist.  The novelty is that Travelling Light imagines the backstory for a Hollywood mogul, named Maurice Montgomery, who’d shed his Jewish upbringing as Motl Mendl of the shtetl.  Film critic Jason Solomons noted that the real Hollywood titans- Samuel Goldwyn (born Schmuel Gelbfisz) and Louis B. Mayer (born Lazar Meir) – were born within a 100 miles of Vilnius, Lithuania.  [Other Jews influential in early cinema were Cecil B. de Mille, Jack Warner, and David O. Selznick.  More information could be obtained in Neil Gabler’s 1989 book, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood.]  The marvel was that the non-Jewish playwright was able to capture the tone and atmosphere of a mythical Jewish village in 1900, but Wright declared himself “an assimilated Gentile.”  (The one tone-deaf touch was when a character touched the side of the doorpost and missed where a real mezuzah would be placed.)

The narrator of Travelling Light looks back on his youth when he inherited a motion-picture camera from his father (from whom he’s been estranged for 7 years) and learned to make silent movies, bankrolled by the ebullient and illiterate timber merchant, Jacob Bintel, and assisted by the non-Jewish Anna, who also served as his muse and creative collaborator.  The silent footage of the novice director was projected overhead to the theater audience and wrung more emotion than did his fellow actors.  There was a dissonant clash between the genteel citified accents of the young Motl and the heavily accented English of his elder self, Maurice.  (My companion Aviva suggested that it was meant to convey the fluidity of his native tongue and the awkwardness of a new language.)   Finally, it was disturbing that the highly regarded actor, Antony Sher (awarded Knight Commander of the British Empire (KBE) for “services to theatre” in 2000), played the role of Jacob Bintel so broadly and with such atrocious diction that a member of the telecast audience asked if he was channeling the fictional character Borat as  created by Sacha Baron Cohen.  He could have been warming up to play Tevye of Fiddler on the Roof, although there was a young fiddler in the play, who could have been a young Jascha Heifetz (born in Vilnius in 1901), according to the narrator.

The availability of telecasts is great for theater buffs who cannot be there in person, but it is hampered by intrusion of the camera, which zooms in on actors who’ve train to perform for a larger audience.  Also, it limits the panoramic scope of the viewer who might wish to look at someone other than the subject of the camera’s focus.  I’ve attended live broadcasts of concerts, such as those of the Los Angeles Philharmonic as conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, and that experience was absolutely enhanced by the camera’s ability to follow the conductor on-stage and back-stage.

Travelling Light will be broadcast again this Sunday at 1 pm.  The Bryn Mawr Film Institute is located at 824 W. Lancaster Avenue in Bryn Mawr; its box office phone number is 610-527-9898.  

Before Toddlers With Tiaras and Dance Moms… There Was Rose!

A Review of Gypsy by Dewey Oriente and Tony Cassidy

It was swell! It was great! Opening night of  Gypsy at Bristol Riverside Theatre was first rate! What can be called the crowning jewel of BRT’s 25th Anniversary Season Gypsy, starring the four-time Tony Award nominated Broadway veteran Tovah Feldshuh, moved the audience (especially these two
reviewers) in a way that we have never seen Rose portrayed. Tovah’s take on the iconic role took the character from the highs and lows living her life vicariously through her daughter’s careers and wrapped them up in a truly unique package of when her character needed to take action, the fire in her eyes and the raving richness of her bellowing voice showed that she was a force to be reckoned with. Tovah’s Rose never shuts down, as we can see she is always simmering even when she is in the background. We have seen many a Rose take us on the journey, but this would be the first time we felt the driving force pushing us into the story as she pushed her daughters into theirs. Mazal Tov to you, Tovah for this truly rare look into Rose’s life.

More after the jump.
Tovah’s brilliant portrayal of Rose was complemented by the wonderful talents of Emmy Award Nominee Robert Newman as Herbie and the delightful Amanda Rose as Louise. Broadway should prepare itself for its next “song and dance” man, Joe Grandy, whose portrayal of Tulsa solidified that this talented young man is going to be a star! Mr. Grandy executed Kathryn Kendall’s choreography brilliantly and truly made the
audience believe he was creating the movement on the spot. Speaking of Kathryn Kendall, who put her talents into overdrive as the show’s choreographer as well as portraying Miss Cratchitt and the ever so subtle Mazeppa, showcased herself as a true seasoned professional who has the entire package! Watch out for Bethe B. Austin who knocks the Tessie Tura character out of the ball park with a grand slam performance.

This production is a “must see”. And if you have never been to visit the Bristol Riverside Theatre, you must visit to take in its charm as a delightful performance space. The friendliness of the box office staff, the ushers and everyone involved in the evening truly made you feel appreciated for coming out to support their efforts.

Upcoming productions included in their 25th Anniversary season include a new play, A Raw Space by Jon Marans, the laughter through tears masterpiece Steel Magnolias by Robert Harling, and finishing out the season Jonathan Larson’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning musical Rent.

Gypsy is presented by Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol, PA now through Jan. 15th. Tickets: $40-$65. Information: 215-785-0100 or<?a>.

King Lear of a Role: Tovah Feldshuh in Bristol Riverside’s Gypsy

Broadway veteran and four time Tony nominee Tovah Feldshuh will star as Momma Rose in the Julie Styne-Sondheim-Arthur Laurents musical Gypsy at the Bristol Riverside Theatre December 6, 2011—January 15, 2012.    I had the chance to interview Ms. Feldshuh about the upcoming show and her life as a performer.  

Gypsy opens on December 8, which is a good omen, as Tovah noted it’s the yahrzeit (anniversary) of Golda Meir’s passing as well as the date of her own Bat Mitzvah.    Tovah performed Golda’s Balcony, the longest running one-woman show on Broadway, at the Bristol Riverside in 2010.  

Tovah was not always called Tovah: “I was named after my Aunt Tilley who died in her 30s from tuberculosis.  The Sue comes from my Great Grandmother.”  After she changed her name from Terry Sue to Tovah, her Hebrew name, and began her performance career Tovah said that “it changed the landscape of my life.”  She starred in Yentl on Broadway and in Golda’s Balcony on Broadway, the longest running one-woman show.  But interestingly, she has worked hard not to let her notable Jewish name typecast her: “I’ve played all kinds of roles from Diana Vreeland to judge Danielle Melnick in Law & Order and now, Rose in Gypsy.  What’s in a name? Everything.”

Gypsy is loosely based on the 1957 memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous striptease artist, and focuses on her mother, Rose, whose name has become synonymous with “the ultimate show business mother.”  Following the dreams and efforts of Rose to raise two daughters to perform onstage, the musical contains many popular standards, including

Interview follows the jump.

LG:   When I look at the all the things you do between Law and Order and your one-woman shows, films, and now Gypsy, I wonder how you do it all.  Would you consider yourself a driven person?

TF:  I’m at the prime of my faculties as an artist.   I’ve worked hard for my achievements.  As I get older, the process slows down, but the wisdom increases

LG: Gypsy is a play about a lot of things, but at its heart, it explores the mother-daughter relationship.   How has being a mother and a daughter shaped your life?

TF:  Gypsy is a King Lear role for a woman.  I’m trying not to be derivative in my performance.  Rose is a woman of flesh and blood and guts, not a beast.   She’s driven.  I think the abandonment of her mother is the key to her character.   From the moment you have children, they come first.  So you necessarily have to slow down.   But I think my husband and I did ok – as Amanda’s at MIT studying physics and Brandon is at Harvard studying economics.  

Tovah began to sing some lines from the song, Rose’s Turn for me.    

LG: Did you encourage your own daughter, Amanda, to become an actress?

TF:  I discouraged my own children from going into show business.  

LG:  Why?

TF:  I’m very bourgeois.  

LG: What would you have been, if not an actress?

TF: I came into the theatre after I was wait-listed at Harvard Law School.   My Father went to Harvard Law, and it just so happens so did my husband, who I adore.  You don’t need Freud to figure out how this work!.   It was my brother, (David Feldshuh a Pulitzer price nominated playwright for Miss Evers’ Boy) who encouraged me to apply for the McKnight Fellowship, which I received, and this launched my career.

LG: You have worked in show business for 37 years.    You have done film, television, musical theater, drama – how does this fit into your bourgeois bias?

TF:  I’ve been on my own since I was 21.  I had to live life on a budget and worry whether I had enough money for cab fare in NYC.  At 23, when I was starring in Yentl on Broadway, I decided I didn’t want to be poor.    I was committed to making enough money so I could have some freedom.   I have always tried to balance more commercial jobs with more artistic projects.   I also married a Harvard trained lawyer, which helps!

LG:  Do you have stage fright?

TF:  No, I’m at home on the stage.    Being on the stage is like a warm bath.  I let the gold dust settle where it settles.  I try to remain very loose on the stage and let the truth of the character bubble up.  I hope audiences will see my full skill set in action in this performance of Gypsy at the Bristol.  

LG:  What are you currently reading?

TF:  I’m listening to the book American Rose about Gypsy Lee Rose’s life.  I’m also listening to my voice teacher on an Ipod, as I have to stay focused on my singing.  

Tovah sang a few more bars of Rose’s Turn for me and had to return to rehearsal.  

Tovah Feldshuh stars in Gypsy at Bristol Riverside Theatre as part of its 25th Anniversary Season on December 6-January 15.  With music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents, the production is directed by Keith Baker and also features Robert Newman, Amanda Rose, Brittney Lee Hamilton, Joe Grandy, Bethe B. Austin, Kathryn Kendall, and Demetria Joyce Bailey.

Previews begin Tuesday, December 6 with opening night on Thursday, December 8.  Performances run Tuesday through Sunday until January 15.  Tickets start at $40, with discounts for students and groups.  Tickets are available online or by phone at 215-785-0100.  Bristol Riverside Theatre is located at 120 Radcliffe Street in Bristol, PA.

“They Were Our Neighbors”: Our Class at the Wilma Theater

The Wilma Theater begins its season with the United States Premiere of Our Class, written by Polish playwright Tadeusz Stobodzianek (translated by Ryan Craig) and directed by the Wilma’s Artistic Director Blanka Zizka.   Based on true events in the Polish village of Jedwabne and inspired in part by Princeton History Professor Jan T. Gross’ controversial book Neighbors, Our Class chronicles the lives of ten classmates from their childhood in the 1920s to the beginning of the new millennium.   While it is difficult not to be moved by the tragic subject matter, the play’s overwrought writing, full of sensational and clichéd plotting, does not, finally, succeed in translating the events that happened in Poland into an artful, engaging evening of theatre.  

More after the jump.
On the sparse set, designed by Marsha Ginsberg, you witness the haunting barn inside which 1600 Jews were murdered, burned to death not by the Germans, but by their fellow Polish citizens.   Slobokzianek’s play raises important questions: how can neighbors be moved to murder neighbors, and how does one survive the aftermath of such atrocities?  How do individuals and societies lives with or bury the memory of such deeds?   Unfortunately, the story itself is not told in a compelling, original manner but too often falls into clichéd writing.  For instance, at the opening of Act 2, Wladek, a Pole who must clean up the burned Jewish bodies describes how the bodies were chopped up: “It was horrific.  It made me wretch. I threw up.”   This kind of writing does not add anything to either our understanding of the events nor, more importantly to the character’s development.  

The characters remain wooden and empty vessels – types — who are not fleshed out human beings who one grows to care about.   Torture and brutality and murder and rape – we are well aware of the atrocities of crimes committed by Stalinists and Fascists; good theatre is powerful because it tells us a compelling story with particular details in an engaging way.  Unfortunately, by the time the fourth rape is graphically enacted on the stage I am repelled not by rape, but by the sensationalistic, unaesthetic depiction of actors on a stage.  This could be any rape anywhere and loses its power to move us.   Rather than making the murder that happened in this barn more real, more intimate, more personal, this piling on of characters and rapes effectively dulls us to the events.  It becomes an all too familiar and general tale of life gone very bad for a young group of class mates.  

Are these class mates – Catholic and Jewish, men and women —  the victims of historical circumstances or did they make choices? Unfortunately the play only hints at such questions but its focus seems to want to make us as uncomfortable as possible.   At the performance I attended a group of women left during the intermission.   I had the opportunity to talk with them and the director briefly.  Ms. Zizka, the director, explained that the play does not provide easy answers.   It depicts Jews who sympathized with Stalin as well as local Poles as being responsible for the crimes that occurred.   She said “The characters’ individual memories are subjective and even contradictory.  I admire Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s resolve to ground the play in moral rather than ideological concerns and to leave it to the audience to create their own picture, their own understanding of the events from this choir of disparate voices.”   The audience members with whom I spoke thought the play to be “too much.”  When pressed to state too much of what – they effectively said that the writing was not engaging, that the story was not told in an original manner.   “The characters are not individual, it’s not that the subject matter that is difficult, for I’ve seen many depictions of the Holocaust, but that the writing did not engage me.”  

Despite all of this, the acting is strong, with excellent performances by Kate Czajkowki, who plays Rachelka, a Jewish woman who converts to Catholicism; Michael Rubenfeld, who plays Abram, a Jewish member of the young Polish class who emigrates to America and becomes a rabbi; Ed Swidey who plays Wladek, gives a striking performance.  

In the end Our Class becomes a soggy tale with too much talk of vodka, beatings, hookers and broken fingers, and too little character development to make the play engaging which is a shame as the subject is an excellent one for dramatic adaptation.   Do we really need to know that “eels had eaten off his face.”  In the end, while I admire Our Class’ political and moral engagement with historical material, (for anti-Semitic vandals recently defaced a Polish monument that commemorated where the Polish Jews were killed, writing “they were flammable” and a swastika on the memorial) it fails to make it new, to give new expression to the Shoah.  This does not mean we shouldn’t see the play, and discuss it amongst ourselves — Jews, Poles, Catholics, priests and rabbis.    

After almost three hours of theater, I am left with a lot of chatter — song, dance, and a deluge of words in Our Class, but not what the quiet gravitas that great art may give us by knowing what to leave out.  I wish Our Class had left more restrained silences, more brokenness in its telling of the story of this Polish village.   The German poet Paul Celan’s ambiguous, often sparse poems, in their quiet, mystical restraint, are humble meditations about the Shoah:  “Count the almonds/count what was bitter and kept you awake/ count me in.”  
On Tuesday, November 1st: “America as Haven,”  A program of The Wilma Theatre and the National Museum of American Jewish History.  This program will examine the idea and reality of this country as a place where immigrants can find a new life.  Director Blank Zizka, who was born in the former Czechoslovakia, will discuss her own experience alongside others with expertise of 20th Century immigration.  Actor Michael Rubenfeld from the production of Our Class, will read letters from the Museum’s collection written across continents between immigrants and their families.  Complimentary reception follows the discussion..   Held at the National Museum of American Jewish History, 101 S. Independence Mall East.

Our Class: October 21 – November 13, 2011
Where: The Wilma Theatre   265 South Broad Street   Philadelphia, PA 19107
Tickets: range from $39 to $66, available at the Wilma Box office 215 546 7824, visiting or at the theater.


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.”

Theater Chat by Hannah Lee

Hissing snakes, leaping monkeys, and mooing cows.  No, not stage props, but animated decorations at the sumptuous dessert table at Theatre Ariel‘s theatrical salon, hosted by Susie and Marty Lautman at their Merion home last evening.  Susie knows how to put on an extravaganza, so in addition to the multitude of frogs in different guises brought out annually for Pesach (Passover), she added some additional wildlife.  Me, I thought I lost a year of my life, when not three feet away the huge snake started hissing, his eyes glowing red.

The event was a reading of four ten-minute plays on the theme of “A Stranger in our Midst.”  Founder of the 20-year-old Jewish company, Deborah Baer Mozes had invited playwrights to submit new compositions on this theme after last Pesach.  They received 63 submissions from around the world.  She and Theatre Ariel President, Adena Potok, selected the final minyan plus one (11) plays.  Last night was a reading of a sample of the new pieces, plus others already in the Jewish repertory canon, so to speak.

The original reading was: An Answer to their Prayers by Henry W. Kimmel about two disaffected single people, sitting in the back pew of a synagogue for Friday night services.  They were strangers in their own Jewish tradition.

The other plays that had been performed before are: From the Narrows by former Akiba student Lisa Silberman Brenner, who holds a Ph.D. in theater from Columbia University and now teaches at Drew University in Madison, NJ.  This is a modern midrash, re-imagining why we never hear from the Biblical Moses’s mother, Yocheved, after she’d given up her son, twice.  In this play, Yocheved choses not to leave Mitzrayim, ancient Egypt, with her family, because she doesn’t want to be a stranger in a new land.  Her story could be that of countless women who’ve had to choose between a war-torn homeland (even from servitude) and the bewildering unknown.  The actresses, Rene (pronounced “Reen”) Goodwin as Yocheved and Alana Gerlach, who teaches theater at Rowan University, as her daughter Miriam were superb in their roles, notably without sets, costumes, or makeup.

Ceasefire by Columbia-trained playwright, Ken Kaissar, is set on the Israeli-Lebanon border after the Second Lebanon War had ended in August, 2006.  The cast of characters are: Udi, a sarcastic, jaded Army veteran; Yossi, a nervous young soldier, fresh out of training, and the Arab “Ahmed” from the Lebanon border, who finally relates his real name.  The verbal interactions between Yossi and Ahmed succinctly highlight the historical context for fear and suspicion between these two peoples.  They are each strangers in each other’s narratives.

Wordplay by Rich Orloff is the relative classic, having been performed since 1999.  It is a hilarious, quick volley of words, as spoken by Yiddish-fluent Jews, and anyone else who attempts to learn them from a dictionary.  Here, the stranger is the goy, non-Jew, who joins a Jewish company of unspecified business.

Theatre Ariel plans to hold a reading of all 11 finalist plays in June at the Bristol Riverside Theatre in Bristol, PA.