The Kind of Wonderful Reviews We Thought We’d Be Getting…

We’re seeing the biggest swings of reactions we’ve ever witnessed, the widest range of yeas and nays in the press, in our audience, in our circle of council members and friends.  Passion, Passion:  We’re all about that at Theater J, and it’s the leitmotif of DAVID as well.  So much darkness amid so much light!

So how fitting it is that this amazing Georgetowner review by longtime critic and features writer Gary Tischler should tap into the new/old, avant-garde/traditional dialectic that makes DAVID so big, so challenging, so confounding to some, so thrilling to others.  We received The Georgetowner notice, together with another rave in the DC Examiner by Barbara Mackay, on Wednesday.  We include them in full below:



MAY 28, 2008

There are a lot of strains and strings being played and pulled in the often audacious, world premiere production of  “David in Shadow and Light”, a genre-defying  new musical play based on the story of the biblical giant-killer hero who became a powerful and tragic king of the Israelites.

For all the winking nods to today’s political and post-modern  climate, the striving to be cool, this genre-defying project is at its heart something very old-fashioned. It sucker-punches you in the heart, and in reaching for a big-sized theme in the end actually grabs it and shakes it like a bible story teller.

“David in Shadow and Light” is also the most ambitious project ever taken on by Theater J. Artistic Director Ari Roth sees David as a natural subject  for our contentious contemporary political world. “He was the biggest celebrity to ever walk the face of the earth. He had the greatest gifts, the highest charisma quotient he was wildly popular, wildly romantic, rapacious, God fearing, flesh loving,  a bollix of contradictions, how contemporary is that?” 

Well, this David sounds like a phenom, who could resemble Barack Obama, but he sounds as if he has more Clintonian qualities, Bill that is, in his appetites.  This production, directed by Nick Olcott, has a libretto by Yehuda Hyman that veers from the text-messaging age to a truth-telling, raw biblical style, and  original music by Daniel Hoffman which verges wildly along atonal, risky contemporary styles, to primitive, passionate surges of near-melodic feeling. Perhaps even more critical is the choreography of Peter DiMuro and Shula Strassfeld of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. Dance figures strongly in this play, movement as a signifier of events, character and personality every bit as much as dialogue. And that’s not counting the conceit that David’s life is played out like a life film in front of an angel and Adam the father of us all.

That’s a lot of chefs and cooks  sharing responsibility, but then you need almost every bit of the ingredients, the music, the whirling dancing, the words both profound, funny, touching and  way cool, for a play that features David, the young shepherd boy as a magnetic natural. Everybody’s drawn to him: his sheep whom he treats as individuals, King Saul, who sees him standing in the light of God, and therefore a threat to his rule; his son Jonathan who loves him immediately and deeply; Saul’s daughter Michal, who swoons like a teenager in hopeless love. the prophet Samuel, who anoints him, even Goliath, the punked-out Philistine, who turns out to be David’s cousin. (It was a small world even then).

For all the claims of contemporariness made for this David, a ravaged, bone-weary Adam, played from a wheelchair in wise, funny, wounded style by the superb  Norman Aronovic, gets David right away and in a nutshell.  “Look at his heart,” he says when he and the angel Metatron (Helen Hayes Award winner Donna Migliaccio) discover David as a baby. “He has  the heart of the world.”. That’s the big idea in the play, and its smartly, sometimes heart-breakingly illustrated in the play with brilliant casting doubling.

David, the play suggests , is all of us, he has the gifts to make him a great man, and the weaknesses, the hungers, the recklessness that we all share. He is a man in full, fully human and that’s what we recognize As a young man he careens through the air with powerful legs and jumps, daring to all but fly. He’s a gentle kid, gentling his sheep, a brave boy facing Goliath, a swain and lover to both Jonathan and his sister, a player of great music that soothes a trouble, fallen king Saul.  He’s lover, father, king warrior and adulterer, he’s, oh, everything and everybody, up from nothing,  full of crying-out-loud fleshy needs and wants, a poet, in God’s light, naked. That’s the biggest and best conceit of this play.

How does it work for the audience? Not with jarring contemporary quips like Solomon, answering David’s fatherly question about how he spends his time. “Oh you know. Studying … Hanging out.” You can find a whole little tribe of mice-like lines like that throughout the play, which, while smart, don’t sing, don’t sting.

What hurts the heart is how David is played with such fall-in-love exuberance and attractiveness, by Matt Pearson, lean muscled, big-eyed,  big of heart and confidence, energetic, poet in his dancing moves, he’s a soulful youth for whom anything is possible. You think God isn’t just wise in choosing him, he’s a little smitten, like his angel.

The casting is what makes the Adam’s point like an arrow coming out of the sun. The young David morphs into the older, adulterous, betrayed-by-his-son David played by Bobby Smith whom we first saw as Saul, the king brought down by David. Jonathan, Saul’s son and David’s great friend, is played with devotion and strength by Will Garshore, who becomes Absalom, David’s son who rises against him.

“David in Shadow and Light,” which has been extensively workshopped, is a ground up work from Theater J. It may not be as cool as it sometimes thinks it is. How unsentimental a play can it be when it delivers a touching emotional moment with a puppet lamb? But, when it’s not U-Tubing, it does something much better really well. It shows you the heart of the world.



From the review in Wednesday’s Examiner:


Washington Examiner by Barbara Mackay

“David in Shadow and Light” is a massive undertaking, using masks, puppets and an extensive palatte of song and dance. With a libretto by Yehuda Hyman and music by Daniel Hoffman, “David” remounts the biblical story of David, the shepherd boy who slew the giant Goliath and became king of Israel.

“Shadow and Light” refers to the fact that this is a post-modern portrait, where flaws are not glossed over but celebrated. This David is a man capable of great love and great perfidy, a man who represents both the heights humans can achieve and the depths to which they fall.

Hyman’s story uses a clever frame, envisioning history as a film viewed by Adam (Norman Aronovic) and the Angel Metatron (the excellent Donna Migliaccio).

 The script is lengthy, although considering the amount of territory it covers, this fact and action-packed musical flows easily and thankfully there is humor woven through it.

Director Nick Olcott has assembled an ensemble of 10 outstanding voices. Matt Person convincingly plays the carefree, irrepressible young David as well as the older, battle-hardened king. Bobby Smith’s strong voice and commanding presence make him an excellent choice for Saul/Older David. 

Will Gartshore is more than equal to the task of playing Jonathan, Saul’s son.  Saul’s daughter Michal is charmingly portrayed by Carolyn Agan.  The temptress Bathsheva is played with authority by Peggy Yates.

Misha Kachman’s imaginative set is made up of sliding screens [which] Colin Bills’ lighting design effectively utilizes…making them appear transparent or solid. The costumes by Reggie Ray are at times clever but primarily sumptuous. The crisp choreography by Peter DiMuro and Shula Strassfeld creates an intriguing variety of styles for the chorus.

Although the various elements are noteworthy, it is the music that seems to inspire the production and Theater J happily emphasizes Hoffman’s presence: He sits with the his ensemble on a platform high above the stage, barely visible behind a screen, leading the action with his extraordinary violin.