Author Archives: Ari Roth

Rabbis In The News & Remembering our Mikveh Dramas

We began the season on September 1st with a reading of Renee Calarco’s G-d’s Honest Truth; a fictionalized account inspired by local headlines of a rabbi who perpetrated a fraud on his community.  That play comes to full life later this season.

Four years ago, we offered a play from Israel that involved an unseen rabbi’s violent tendency towards his wife, as she slowly revealed her drama to a group of women in her monthly visits to the neighborhood mikveh.  Hadar Galron’s play, Mikveh, was a long-running hit in Israel and caused a sensation, and some concern, when we presented the English language world premiere on our stage in 2010.

MIKVEH by Hadar Galron, directed by Shirley Serotsky

MIKVEH by Hadar Galron, directed by Shirley Serotsky – illustration by                   David Polonsky

The play showed the beauty of the mikveh ritual and the power of women coming together to seek solace in the cleansing, healing waters and blessings associated with ritual submersion. But because the play involved not just spousal abuse but also a death by drowning in the mikveh (and not just one suicide, but ultimately, in the end, two!) it was feared that the play would “give a black eye to the orthodox community” in its melodramatic portrait of life in and around the mikveh.  It’s worth a visit back to our blog entries from that Voices From a Changing Middle East 2010 Festival dedicated to the Voice of the Woman.  Lots and lots of drama surrounding that show.  Was it right to put such a frank (or heightened) portraiture on our stage?  Certainly at the time, the Embassy of Israel thought it was worth it.  They loved the play and bought the entire house for one performance to share it with friends from the diplomatic community.  This was the kind of work coming out of Israel—a play that brought Israeli audiences from secular as well as religious background together by the thousands—that wanted to be shared with American audiences; that demonstrated the Israeli theater fulfilling its cultural mission and purpose.

Amal Saade and Tonya Beckman Ross in Mikveh

Amal Saade and Tonya Beckman Ross in Mikveh

Now a new real-life mikveh drama has unfolded before us and I’ve asked those who want to, to respond personally and associatively to what they’ve been reading or hearing.  Many will be learning about the mikveh ritual for the first time in reading about this terrible violation.  But most of us—especially the women amongst us—know what it means to be watched and to be made to feel unsafe because of that furtive gaze.
This is a chance to share your thoughts about the recent scandal at Kesher Israel Congregation in Georgetown.  And to reflect on the sensitivity of discussing—and indeed, perhaps, someday maybe dramatizing—such events in public.
I’ve ask students to think about this story, and its relation, in whatever ways come to mind, to G-d’s Honest Truth.  We’re approaching our comments with care and sensitivity.
Here’s the powerful opinion piece I hope people will have a number of thoughts about (having very little to do, likely, with G-D’S HONEST TRUTH, and much more with issues folks are very familiar with from their own lives): “For the victims of voyeurs, a terrible theft of trust

What does it mean when these crimes and violations are made public?

How do we feel about the theater’s role in returning to these stories of religious scandal?

Tony Kushner’s Latest Epic – And Recalling His First

Earlier this week, we began rehearsals for Tony Kushner’s thrilling new masterwork, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide To Capitalism and Socialism With a Key To The Scriptures. I want to share with you my own opening remarks to the company of amazing actors, designers, staff and supporters, and our always extraordinary partner in art, director John Vreeke. But first let’s hear from John, and productions designers Misha Kachman and Ivania Stack. Here’s a video peek from our first day of rehearsals:

Inside_Look To see the video, click here.

Opening Welcome Remarks, from the Artistic Director:

As concerned as we are with the clock [because we want to make sure we get to the end of this play before 11:00 and it's 6:15 now and we've got presentations and breaks to account for, so I'll talk in a hurry]
It’s important that we lead with our love; how it leads to why we’re here
That we open with passion in presenting our purpose:

Which is to bring a great thing-—this thing called I-HO—-to life.
To do justice to a great mind, a brilliant voice, and bring this fabulously fractious family into vivid relief as they say try to goodbye to each other
while trying to save each other
from the shattering loneliness of losing; losing the battle, losing memory…
while striving to renew their union (to each other).
Some quick context about why we’re here — about what this play is doing here of all places?

This first question:
Do you remember where you were when you first encountered Angels in America?
You were younger, I’ll bet.
So was Tony Kushner. In Angels, Tony wrote, as a young gay renegade, brilliant and better than anyone.

What was your first impression of Angels?
[That's the prompt for our student theater-goers—To respond to the blast of reading Angels for the first time.  Or alternately, talk about reading Homebody/Kabul, so near and dear to Theater J-goers' hearts.]

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The Amazing Mike Nussbaum, Still At It!

A beautiful profile in The New York Times today about the great Chicago actor, Mike Nussbaum, appearing now at The Goodman Theatre in Noah Haidle’s Smokefall (which I hope to see when I’m out there). Mike’s been on a non-stop streak of great performances in big productions, intimate Off-Loop venues, musicals at Navy Pier; the actors gamut. Our memories are still fresh from his 2011 residency with us in Imaging Madoff. You’ll remember the fun we had with that (and all the dramas around Deb Margolin’s premiere, and all the joys of finally sharing the production, directed so beautifully by Alexandra Aron, and co-starring Rick Foucheux and Jennifer Mendenhall. Here’s a perfect complement to the Times profile; our own DC Theatrescene’s 2011 interview with Mike.

Here’s a salute to one of the greats, in every way!

Mike Nussbaum as Solomon Galkin (Photo: C. Stanley Photography)

Mike Nussbaum as Solomon Galkin (Photo: C. Stanley Photography)

Rick Foucheux as Bernie Madoff and Mike Nussbaum as Solomon Galkin (Photo: C. Stanley Photography)

Rick Foucheux as Bernie Madoff and Mike Nussbaum as Solomon Galkin (Photo: C. Stanley Photography)

Mike Nussbaum as Solomon Galkin (Photo: C. Stanley Photography)

Mike Nussbaum as Solomon Galkin (Photo: C. Stanley Photography)

From Revolution to Revolution To Revolution… It’s In The Air

We saw David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette last night at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. It was inspiring of awe and emulation. It reminded us, as per the director’s dictum, that “theater is about re-invention.” And this theater last night was about Revolution; a gruesome, successful and influential revolution. As last week’s Awake and Sing was about the dream of a different revolution, that failed to take hold in Jacob Berger’s lifetime, or the lifetime of his progeny. How different an evening of theater did we just experience, between the 1935 breakthrough classic by Odets, and this searing new play and production over at Woolly? I’m so eager to read of others’ experience of walking into Woolly for the first time; of experiencing the in-your-face audacity that was that immersive production’s quality… does it make you think of theater differently, to experience a history play that viscerally?

I’ll have more to share. This is just to get us started. Marie Antoinette and what it did to you: Go!

Kimberly Gilbert as Marie Antoinette, center, holds court in a Jacuzzi with two of her fabulous friends. (Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company)

Kimberly Gilbert as Marie Antoinette, center, holds court in a Jacuzzi with two of her fabulous friends. (Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company)

A Wonderful “Awake and Sing” at Olney Theatre

This is the season for iconic Jewish plays on stage throughout the Washington DC area.  In how many cities can you see, Yentl, Fiddler on the Roof, and Awake and Sing all in a one month window? (Our Yentl closes Sunday with two final performances after taking Friday and Saturday off for Yom Kippur — and Fiddler began rehearsals this week, with our own Yentl , Shayna Blass, in the Arena Stage cast!) Still, in Fiddler and Awake and Sing, we’re talking about standard bearers for the American theater writ-large.  The Jewish experience, we can all agree, has been accepted to speak for the larger American experience—or certainly a part of it, right?  These works works aren’t confined to a ghetto of specialized, ethnic programming.

Rick Foucheux as Jacob and Alex Mandell as Ralph Berger in Olney Theatre Center’s production of AWAKE AND SING! (Photo by Stan Barouh)

Rick Foucheux as Jacob and Alex Mandell as Ralph Berger in Olney Theatre Center’s production of AWAKE AND SING! (Photo by Stan Barouh)

And yet, at last night’s talk-back at Olney Theatre, the final question (coming from someone very close to our theater company, no less) was posed in a candid way: “Isn’t this more of a New York story, and much less an American story?” There was some push-back from director Serge Seiden on stage, joining about 3/4ths of the cast.  It provided an opportunity for us to contemplate; can the singular, ethnic experience be meant to represent the larger nation’s experience?  Our questioner didn’t see his own California family in Odets’ New York Jews.  He felt an outsider to what was happening on stage.  We’ve all heard stories (courtesy of Alisa Solomon’s remarkable cultural history of Fiddler on The Roof, “Wonder of Wonders”) of how Fiddler has played just as convincingly in Japan as it has in Manhattan (“Tradition” rings resoundingly in the Far East, as do the threats to that cultural tradition.) But if you don’t recognize yourself, or your family, on stage, does that confine the universality and applicability of the portrait?

The great service of Seiden’s Olney Theatre production seems to be the way it speaks so powerfully, emotionally, and convincingly to three different generations at the same time.  How alive those young people felt last night! At least to me.  Odets language, electric for its time, popped off the stage so vividly and musically, shiny and new once again.  And the political divisions in the house-hold, with calls for strike from the elder statesman Jacob meeting up with calls for striking back at the rib cages of the agitating workers by big businessman brother Uncle Morty brought home that truism; that the most political entity remains the family, teeming, diverse and dynamic.

There’s so much to say about this show, and I hope we read some detailed comments over this holiday weekend.  We’ve been reading about The Group Theatre.  We’ve just read Odets’ Waiting For Lefty which sets the stage for this fuller, richer full-length treatment.  And I entreat everyone to check out the Olney Theatre blogsite for this production; a potpourri of great background context and information that helps give veracity and depth to the vivid production.

One point I do want to share — in encouraging our entire Theater J community to go out and see this great local production of Awake and Sing — is to mentally bookmark this play’s most dramatic event — the suicidal despair of Jacob Berger (played so beautifully by our dear friend—and most recent Dr. Frued in Seiden’s production of Freud’s Last Session, Rick Foucheux), a despair emerging from political disappointment and a self-incriminating realization that he’s as much to blame for the weakness of the movement—and the political weakness within his own struggling family.  This is a despair we’re going to experience early in Tony Kushner’s new play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide To Capitalism and Socialism With a Key To The Scriptures.  In so many ways, Kushner has written an homage to the family plays of Odets, and Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill.  But I never realized, until last night, how Kushner’s septuagenarian, Gus Marcantonio, is a direct descendant of Odets’ Jacob. They are similarly cut characters on a trajectory of ideological downfall.  Different from Gus, Jacob is a failed revolutionary who talked big “but instead drank a glass tea.” He talked about revolution but didn’t do enough about it. Gus, we’ll find out, is quite different; he’s an Italian-American retired longshoreman and lifetime member of the Communist Party USA, on the frontlines of the worker’s revolution, American-style. And he sees in his own battles won and in his own negotiated victories for the Guaranteed Income, for example, the seeds to his own movement’s undoing, in the midst of a larger attack from the forces of Capitalism challenging his Socialist values.

I simply had not paid attention to the ways that Awake and Sing sets up Kushner’s play so movingly. We start rehearsals for it in 10 days.

Meanwhile, Awake and Sing runs out in Olney through October 19 (only two more weeks!).

Amy Herzog is Back in Town!

Amy Herzog PhotoA year ago this time, we were enjoying a successful run of After The Revolution by the white-hot young playwright, Amy Herzog. We were following on the heels of Studio Theatre’s 4000 Miles.

Nancy Robinette as Vera and Megan Anderson as Emma in "After The Revolution"

Nancy Robinette as Vera and Megan Anderson as Emma in “After The Revolution”

Baltimore Center Stage’s artistic director, Kwame Kwei-Armah was in our audience a year ago and deeply enthused by what he saw in Herzog’s world — an elegant fusion of the personal and political; the familial historical drama replete with deep inter-generational relationships fused with staggering revelations. Kwame’s producing both After The Revolution and 4000 Miles at Center Stage this season in a repertory staging that should be wonderfully illuminating (this time, with the character of Vera, the octogenarian Commie grandma) no doubt played by the same actress!

Tana Hicken and Grant Harrison in Studio Theatre’s production of "4000 Miles"

Tana Hicken and Grant Harrison in Studio Theatre’s production of “4000 Miles”

Should be amazing, right?

Last night we took in Herzog’s third NYC hit play (though a thornier story and, truth be told, not quite the regional hit that the other two plays have been; 4000 Miles being the short 3 character play that dozens upon dozens are producing and still producing all over the country.) Belleville over at Studio Theatre is a new genre play for Herzog, though it’s got staggering revelations of a different sort going on: It’s a thriller. Or I should say, it becomes a thriller. It starts as a character study of a couple; of two couples; a meditation on First World Problems of Entitlement meeting up with more Working Class Immigrant Concerns. But the play’s a lot more than a sociological study. And it’s a lot more than a hollywood nail-biter, though toe-nails do factor into the stagecraft.

Jacob H. Knoll and Gillian Williams in ‘Belleville’ at Studio Theatre. Photo by Igor Dmitry

Jacob H. Knoll and Gillian Williams in ‘Belleville’ at Studio Theatre. Photo by Igor Dmitry

Eager to hear responses!

Joy Jones (Amina) and Maduka Steady (Alioune) in Belleville. Photo by Igor Dmitry.

Joy Jones (Amina) and Maduka Steady (Alioune) in Belleville. Photo by Igor Dmitry.

On Political Theatre vs. Political Theatrics and What Theater Is Good For (Why We Need It – Or Do We?)

A student alerted me to this news analysis in The Washington Post last week, suggesting that President Barack Obama was dismissive of the art of political theater.

“…minutes after delivering a statement proclaiming himself “heartbroken” over the execution of journalist James Foley by the Islamic State, Obama went out and played a round of golf on Martha’s Vineyard. On Sunday, in an interview with Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press”, Obama came close to acknowledging that that decision had been a mistake. He said (in part): “I should’ve anticipated the optics. Part of this job is also the theater of it….it’s not always something that comes naturally to me. But it matters.”

Barack Obama
I posted the link on my facebook page [friend me if you like]. The article spawned 280 comments on The Post website (not unusual) and a bunch of erudite reflections on my wall (also not unusual). Here’s a flavor of the debate:

Stephanie… “It’s true. He is so intelligent in many ways, but is tone-deaf when it comes to “optics”. I think this quote goes further than “close to acknowledging”–to my ear, it is definitely an apology. I can just see the daily schedule by which our presidents live, and how they go on autopilot following what it dictates.”

Ari… “Thanks for this reflection, Stephanie. Here’s the thing for all of us who believe in the integrity of theater to contemplate: Is the press and Obama himself suggesting in their use of the term “theater,” that the art form is full of empty gesture; worse, a deception? Bill Clinton loved–and loves–the theater of politics; he happens to be a master at it. Obama, in defining himself in contrast to the Clintons, purposely rejected what he considered empty acts that might look good but ultimately accomplished little to nothing…. On the other hand, he does concede that ‘It matters.’ Theatrics matter. Now the question is why and how?”

David… “I relate his citing ‘the theater of it’ to the term optics. Optics, to me, does imply a certain emptiness, in that it is referring explicitly to how a particular act looks. When you add that to the euphemism “political theater” – which is almost exclusively used as a pejorative judgement of something which is intended only to look a certain way, but not really be committed to what it is showing–then, yeah, I think the word theater is being used to imply hypocrisy in the most negative sense. Certainly nothing to do with integrity. The message that he seems to be sending here is to forget about whether the president, after proclaiming his heart to be broken, wanted to go play a round of golf. The gaff was that he actually let people see him do it.

Steven… I think the [Walter] Benjaminian distinction between “a politicization of aesthetics” (Agitprop) and the “aestheticization of politics” (Fascism) helps clarify the problem here. Neither of those two options is really good for the soul or the polis. And that is why criticizing the idea of “political theater” is fair enough as far as I am concerned–just as using theater entirely for spreading the regime’s/party’s propaganda would be enslaving theater to an inappropriate end. We need a responsible, truth-seeking and -seeing approach in both realms, and not an illegitimate conflation of them–which is what Obama dislikes, I assume. Which is not, however, to condemn the LEGITIMATE combination of the two (such as the Inauguration events in 2009).
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