Author Archives: Ari Roth

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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“Yentl” Spotlight on Pesha: More Than a Bully!

Just a few of the many, many comments posted last weekend about YENTL–and here are a few focussing on Pesha, the hectoring wife to Avigdor–with our new student subscribers making keen insights as to what marks Pesha as an accomplished woman of commerce, even while chasing Avigdor around the shop with a frying pan for his commercial negligence! The students ask strong artistic questions of playwright Leah Napolin’s choice to present Pesha the way she does, and of our production as to why Pesha comes out characterized so unsympathetically, in contrast to Yentl.  Is it necessary to have a villain (of a sort) in this tale?  Is there more to Pesha than what some are seeing?

Judith Ingber (who plays Pesha), Amy McWilliams and Shanta Parasuraman sing "I Hate Girl Things"

Judith Ingber (who plays Pesha), Amy McWilliams and Shanta Parasuraman sing “I Hate Girl Things”

We share reactions to these observations about Pesha from Susan Wiedman Schneider, founding editor and publisher of Lilith Magazine, a media sponsor on this production, and from the show’s director, Shirley Serotsky.

First two excerpts from the show.  First at their betrothal ceremony:

ZLATEH. What my Pesha needs is a husband to help out in the store. If you’re smart you’ll do it. No one ever got rich from sitting and shaking his head over the Talmud all day! (Party Guests agree.)

AVIGDOR. I’m not a shopkeeper.

PESHA. I’ll teach you how to be one.

AVIGDOR. A shopkeeper is born a shopkeeper.

PESHA. You’ll learn as you go along. The first rule in business is—buy cheap and sell steep!

FEITL. (Proudly) See, what did I tell you? She’ll be a good provider!

…Contrasted with this snippet, from later in their relationship:

PESHA. Put away the soap.

AVIGDOR. Where shall I put it?

PESHA. On the shelves.

AVIGDOR. But the shelves are filled with pots.

PESHA. So take down the pots and put them somewhere else!

AVIGDOR. (With an armload of pots) Where shall I put them?

PESHA. On your head! (AVIGDOR lets the pots drop.) What’s the matter with you? Pick them up!

AVIGDOR. If you speak to me like that again, I’ll walk out!

PESHA. Ha! See how far you get with no money in your pocket.

AVIGDOR. You never give me any.

PESHA. You don’t earn it! (She notices a fish on the floor.) Who’s been in the herring barrel?

AVIGDOR. A woman came in and bought some soap and herring. She said she’d come back and settle with you later.

PESHA. You let her take them without paying? (Screams) Fool! (She runs out.) Help, thief! Thief! (She runs back in.) Idiot, idiot! You’ll be the death of me! (She grabs a ladle and starts to chase him.)

AVIGDOR. Pesha, please …

PESHA. I’ll murder you! I’ll tear you to pieces! (AVIGDOR tumbles over the stool and sits on the floor holding his head.) Who’ll save me from this half-wit?

And now our student comments:

Timothy Sell | September 5, 2014 at 11:58 pm

What is particularly interesting to examine in Leah Napolin’s play adaptation of “Yentl” is the character of Pesha. Pesha is introduced from the very beginning as a widow, whose husband died within the first year of marriage, which is a sign of bad luck. However, more than this, Pesha is seen in the town as a force to be reckoned with when it comes to running a business. She is referred to as more-or-less the breadwinner of her and Avigdoor’s marriage and even publicly scolds Avigdoor when he commits an error at the store. Also, when it comes to the night of their wedding, Pesha is not described as the tender and loving woman to Avigdoor that Hadass strived to achieve with Anshel; Pesha instead seemingly wishes to speed through sex and not bother with Avigdoor’s songs. This is of significance because Hadass was advised by other women of the town to give herself to Anshel in any way he wanted. It can be reasonably inferred then that Pesha, as a woman, was given similar advice. This dynamic Pesha is allowed to maintain in a very strict Jewish society with stringent gender norms intrigues me. After all, whether they are serving meals or being referred to as “footstools,” women are largely seen as servants to men in this play. However, Pesha seems to slightly break free from this as the more traditional role of men to provide for their families falls to her, as she runs a business and receives praise for her ability to make money.

I wish to add a quick note here to say that Pesha definitely does not take on all the stereotypical gender roles of a man in her marriage to Avigdoor. After all, the way Avigdoor and Anshel sexually objectify Pesha’s breasts to compare them to large melons demonstrates they primarily see her for her physical appearance and not for her intelligence in running a business. Pesha is also never seen being allowed to participate in studying or religious practices. But, when compared to the roles of Hadass and the other minor female characters, we see that Pesha certainly takes more liberties as she navigates a society dominated by men and masculine desires.

The question that remains then is why? One speculation is the fact that Pesha has already been married once before. In the time between her first and second marriages, Pesha may have had to provide for herself and consequently prove herself to be a successful businesswoman. Or, since Pesha grew up with a father who was a praised leather dealer, she might have inherited the “family gene” for business and society simply allows her to maintain this role. In any case, although minor, Pesha is a complicated character who, through her actions of the play, provokes much thought on gender roles in a religiously-charged culture.

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YENTL Opens The New Season (part 1)

We began rehearsals for our season opener in the throes of summer – on July 29 – and the playwright Leah Napolin came down from NYC and regaled us with stories of meeting I.B. Singer and working with for three days on her adaptation of his landmark short story. Here’s a choice excerpt from her rehearsal remarks.
10649649_10152669946259883_2948068715227125029_n And as the rehearsal weeks went on, our creative team shared lots of insights and aspirations with a number of great interviewers. Read interviews with the playwright, the composer, the director.

Here’s Lisa Traiger’s interview with our great singer-songwriter composer Jill Sobule in The Forward.

And another feature on the composer courtesy of Theatre Washington

The Washington Post had this incredible feature the weekend before previews began. “‘Yentl’ sings a new tune in a new stage version getting its D.C. premiere!”
10628360_10152669945889883_1989294860516468819_n And one last great feature to share, this time an interview with director Shirley Serotsky, in DC Theatrescene.

There’s more and more background to share, but a lot the rest is in our playbill at the theater and we want to encourage you to refer to your hardcopy of the program in contemplating the great critic Alisa Solomon’s wonderful think piece on “What Becomes An American Jewish Icon Most?”

And there’s my introduction, a welcome to the world of Yentl and why we’ve chosen to open the season with this warm but hardly fuzzing iconic work, rejiggered and highly re-energized for our cultural and political moment. Here’s a bit of what I shared in the program: Continue reading

Page-To-Stage Meets “G-d’s Honest Truth”

G-D'S HONEST TRUTH_final_IllustrationWe were back in the friendly confines of the otherwise cavernous Kennedy Center for their 12th annual Labor Day Weekend Page-to Stage Festival, (a project now made possible by one of the great theater supporters in our town, The Share Fund). As The Washington Post told readers earlier this week, Theater J’s been a hearty participant of this city-wide celebration of new work since the festival’s inception and it’s worth remembering and sharing with you now all the bountiful work we’ve presented at this annual gathering.

I go back in the interest of summoning some institutional memory—in this 18th season of my producing here at the J—Page-to-Stage provides as good an occasion as any to take stock in what we’ve done; what we’ve witnessed and created together. And in the Page-To-Stage Festival we’ve realized a two-fold ambition: of growing lots of brand new work (refining, revising and workshopping it assiduously) and, most importantly, of going forward to produce all this workshopped drama, seeing the script through to its most complete realization. We’ve let these new plays work their kinks out in public and have gone the distance with them through to production.   That estimable track record of workshop-to-production is no accident; it’s all been planned. We’re a theater company that doesn’t believe in workshopping a play to death and seeing it whither on the vine before fruition, as so often happens (truly the subject for another posting but one worth mentioning here).  We develop lots of work, but we remain committed to bringing much of that work forward to completion.  When we announce a season in the spring, we make a point of scheduling at least one of our new works to have a Kennedy Center workshop.  The results have always been gratifying; enriching.

Here’s a list of what we’ve presented over twelve successive Labor Day weekends (and there are lots of stories to tell about each one of these outings, but for now, let’s just run down the list and appreciate what the Kennedy Center opportunity has allowed us to do):

2002- THE LAST SEDER by Jennifer Maisel

2003 – PSYCHE IN LOVE, WELCOME TO MY RASH & THIRD by Wendy Wasserstein and 

OH, THE INNOCENTS written and composed by Ari Roth

2004 – The Tattooed Girl by Joyce Carol Oates

2005- Picasso’s Closet by Ariel Dorfman

2006- Either, Or by Thomas Keneally

2007 – PROPHECY by Karen Malpede

2008 – Honey Brown Eyes by Stefanie Zadrevec and

Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears  by Theodore Bikel

2009 – Mikveh  by Hadar Galron

2010 – THE MOSCOWS OF NANTUCKET  by Sam Forman and 

PHOTOGRAPH 51  by Anna Ziegler

2011 – THE RELIGION THING  by Renee Calarco

2012 – THE HAMPTON YEARS by Jacqueline E. Lawton

2013 – OUR SUBURB by Darrah Cloud

So for our 16th workshop reading at the Kennedy Center, this year we’ve presented Renee Calarco’s G-D’S HONEST TRUTH, which will be produced later this season in a world premiere staging by Jenny McConnell Frederick. We were thrilled to have all 7 cast members who’ll be doing the production later this season be with us. They included Audrey Bertaux, Rena Cherry Brown, Naomi Jacobson, Michael Kramer, John Lescault, Eric M. Messner and Sasha Olinick.

Our website describes the play this way:

Roberta and Larry always try to do the right thing – for their son (two and a half years into his engagement); for their marriage (never go to bed angry); and especially for their synagogue (which is always trying to build its membership—they’d be happy to tell you more…).

When they have the opportunity to help rescue a Holocaust Torah, they know they have to bring it to Temple Beth David. Partially inspired by the true story of Rabbi Menachem Youlus, the self-dubbed “Jewish Indiana Jones,” G-d’s Honest Truth asks how far we would go to believe a story that’s too good to be true. Told with humor and pathos by the Helen Hayes Award winning playwright and recent recipient of the 2014 Jewish Plays Project Award. 

So the play’s based on an episode that’s hit close to home in the Jewish community of Greater Washingnton and was closely chronicled in the local press.  Here are just a few of the links to news coverage for this story:

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The Blog is Back! Welcome To A Brand New Season!

Little Darlings, It’s been a long cold lonely summer of Theater with no blog posts! How have we survived without thee?

Well, there’s been Facebook, there’s been Twitter, there’s been vacationimages-1, and there’s been tons of activity without the concomitant documentation; such was the success of Golda’s Balcony, Freud’s Last Session, and The Prostate Dialogues; three marvelous shows that did amazing things for our theater — for two of our festivals (Voices From a Changing Middle East with Golda, and Locally Grown: Community Supported Art for Prostate, together with four wonderful new works by local writers who got their props on facebook, e-blasts, and elsewhere over the internets but not here, alas).  The critical, popular and financial success of Golda and Freud’s allowed us to end with another hugely successful season in the black; we closed happy and strong and more popular than ever. That’s a helluva way to pick up the thread of our blog narrative after the close of The Admission (see previous posting), one of our most controversial, artistically satisfying, critically hailed, and endlessly debated projects.  We’ve gone from strength to strength to strength to strength in 2014 and we’re gearing up for more with the opening of Yentl this week.

How to account for almost 5 months of quiet on this blog?  Let’s let you be the psychotherapist; the detective; the arm-chair observer wondering how this most prolix and self-disclosing of theater companies could be so quiet for so long?  And what does it mean that we’re back? Free to express, and promote, and to share and have conversation with an audience and a readership—one that we’ve neglected; a communication we’ve left unattended to.  Let us fill in the blanks and say that the silence speaks, but the works on stage speak more; the season announcement speaks volumes; how we got to that season announcement—what’s in and what’s out; the drama of selection and approval and budgeting, all in the midst of a producing frenzy seeing us close out a season of some 235 performances in one campaign (no, we won’t see the likes of a 9 production season like that again — 9 shows on a singular stage — playing to more people at the DCJCC than ever before) — it was an awful lot to produce; a lot to host; and the great success of the plays begot more work elsewhere; more showings in other venues; stuff that was difficult to keep up with on the blog and then the auditions, over 500 audition slots filled over the course of these last 4 months to bring you one of the most exciting assemblages of actors ever! Have you see this poster of our casting?  Let’s let this announcement below of our superstar talent be the final testament here for our summer of quieter communication…. WE WERE BUSY HIRING GLORIOUS ARTISTS!!!!

Theater J actors for the 2014-15 season: Lise Bruneau, Deidra LaWan Starnes, Eric M. Messner, Paul Morella, Brandy Burre, JaBen Early, Joe Brack, Kelly Renee Armstrong, Lindsay Elizabeth Williams, Naomi Jacobson, Amy McWilliams, Michael Kevin Darnall, Monica West, Eric Hissom, Shane O'Loughlin, Jonathan Feuer, Shanta Parasuraman, Shayna Blass, Susan Rome, Tom Wiggin, Josh Adams, Jenifer Deal, Sara Dabney Tisdale, Jesse Terrill, Michael Kramer, Sasha Olinick, Judith Ingber, John Lescault, Rena Cherry Brown, Lisa Hodsoll, Brandon McCoy, Sue Jin Song, James Whalen, Michael Anthony Williams, Kimberly Gilbert, Barbara Rappaport, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Aaron Bliden, Audrey Bertaux, Tim Getman

Theater J actors for the 2014-15 season: Lise Bruneau, Deidra LaWan Starnes, Eric M. Messner, Paul Morella, Brandy Burre, JaBen Early, Joe Brack, Kelly Renee Armstrong, Lindsay Elizabeth Williams, Naomi Jacobson, Amy McWilliams, Michael Kevin Darnall, Monica West, Eric Hissom, Shane O’Loughlin, Jonathan Feuer, Shanta Parasuraman, Shayna Blass, Susan Rome, Tom Wiggin, Josh Adams, Jenifer Deal, Sara Dabney Tisdale, Jesse Terrill, Michael Kramer, Sasha Olinick, Judith Ingber, John Lescault, Rena Cherry Brown, Lisa Hodsoll, Brandon McCoy, Sue Jin Song, James Whalen, Michael Anthony Williams, Kimberly Gilbert, Barbara Rappaport, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Aaron Bliden, Audrey Bertaux, Tim Getman

Programming for THE ADMISSION

Below, a guest post from Stephen Stern, Chair of the Theater J Council Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival Committee.

You can see video excerpts of two of the discussions on our Vimeo site:

Marshall Breger and Peter Beinart

The American Jewish Community and Israel: A Conversation with Peter Beinart from Theater J on Vimeo.

Breakdown to Breakthrough: Dennis Ross, Tamara Cofman Wittes, Ghaith al-Omari

Breakdown to Breakthrough: From First Intifada to the White House Lawn from Theater J on Vimeo.

Now, from Stephen:

We set for ourselves the task of determined dialogue–sixteen multi-themed civil conversations among panelists and with our audience–to respond to theatrical art and public issues raised by sixteen workshop performances of the Admission.   A small group–opposed to such production and conversation in a Jewish community institution–had very vocally described us as people using a “made-up massacre” to defame Israel.  These detractors selected and distorted elements of the historical controversy on what happened in 1948 in the village of Tantura. The events of that battle were the sorrowful inspiration, and deeply researched context, for a drama of two fictional families (one Palestinian and one Jewish-Israeli) desperately trying to come to terms with each other, and to the legacies of what two fathers did and witnessed there.

Our audience and our panelists shared a journey within this deeply realized story of seven characters and their fates. Then, with those characters firmly in their hearts, time after time our participants engaged in passionate conversation on forgotten memories, historical uncertainties, and the fully real aftermath of one people’s self-determination and another’s dispossession   In our committed practice of public conversation, we shared a path of looking back to hurt and loss, and of exploring our ability to come to terms and as panelist Sahar Khamis put it, “dig and move on”.

“Giora should just apologize and understand that his father is right.”  So said a mother in the audience response part of our Young Leaders salon discussion, reporting on her own family’s conversations on Israel–from her Holocaust survivor parent’s emphasis on refuge and rescue to her daughter troubled by domination and occupation of another people and reluctant-to-speak in public.  Tal Harris, the young leader of One Voice Israel, told of the play summoning forth the multi-faceted, dangerous and volatile historical layers of the Israeli and Palestinian lives that he knew.  For him the play was a “blow in my stomach”, summoning up connections to his peace activism, his Zionism and his love of life.  Tal sees a limit to what we can carry within us. We cannot let our personal stories remain a catastrophe. In the end, that reluctant-to-speak young Jewish woman replied to her mother’s response by asserting that Giora’s painful quest to understand his legacy needed her mother’s and everyone’s attention.

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