More Nice Words from Our Community (and some dissent)

Dear Ari,

I am really happy that I took advantage of the invitation to receive complimentary tickets to the “Seagull on 16th Street.”

It’s hard to believe that there is not a full-house with standing room only for this really really great play. The content was very very alive and personal, and the acting was very very powerful. Also the set and props and background music were great.

It was amazing how many of the characters felt, thought, said, and got caught up in many of the things that I have experienced in my life over the years. My friend poked me in the ribs a lot of times to say “see” … So, in many ways it was like looking in the mirror …

It’s too bad that it’s July in DC and folks are either out of town or outside enjoying the great weather instead of being at Theater J.

Because otherwise, I can’t understand how folks aren’t flocking in fly high with the Seagull on 16th St.
Thanks again (I’m actually thinking of coming again with another friend next week).

[note, revised/amplified by PBS after initial posting]

* * *

Dear Friends,

An indifferent review in the local “newspaper of record” has discouraged attendance at a quite brilliant production – and Theater J is making you some offers YOU CAN’T REFUSE (see below). If you love the tragicomedy of Chekov – this ensemble — brilliantly paced and crafted by Director John Vreeke — sears the heart and provides an abundance of laughs at the human folly we all share. If you’ve followed Ari Roth’s wrestling with Jewish themes, with making Jewish theater, with who he is and who we all are as Jews and humans – come see the touch with which he’s turned a Jewish lens on Chekov’s wrestling with spirituality, pretension, and art – Ari’s outreach to Chekoff pays off! I am so proud we’ve done so well by such a classic at our invaluable Theater J.

I am going back to see it again. Take this opportunity and see it before it is gone.

– Stephen Stern

* * *

On the other hand, there have been people who’ve wrestled with the adaptation, and who’ve still wanted to express troubled feelings about earlier programming decisions this year. The following letter comes from a rabbi who’s been coming to our theater since I started producing in this building in 1998. I count him and his wife as terrific friends of our theater. And yet we’ve had our differences this past season. As you can read…

Dear Ari,

Thanks for the invitation [to write and respond to the production].

First, let me point out that I appreciate but have seldom enjoyed Chekov’s plays, including The Seagull. They are more talk-filled than moving, let alone exciting to me. This production, especially in the second act as the pathos in the characters’ situations began to unfold, moved me for a time, and I appreciated that. I also thought the production was well paced (and well cast) and that the language was accessible, enabling me to keep my concentration and follow the development of the plot and the disclosure of the characters’ personalities. So I found the play interesting, and, as I wrote above, moving at one point. I am glad we are subscribers and came, because the production forced me to revisit Chekov. I may not like his work, but I am aware of its importance, and [my wife] and I had an interesting conversation about it on the way home that by itself was worth the price of admission! I just find the angst of the Russian artist less interesting than I did when I was younger. It’s more a cultural artifact for me than the kind of theater I enjoy. [My wife] had seen the Mike Nichols’ production in New York with Meryl Streep, btw. (I can’t comment sensible about the music because my musical tastes are very narrow (classical and early folk), and none of the songs sounded familiar).

Frankly, I found the engrafting of the Jewish material onto the Chekhov play less than satisfying. I did not think it added anything (in fact it was distracting). Treplev was no more unavailable to Polina [sic] because she was Jewish (or at least the daughter of Jewish parents) than because she was married and he was entranced by Nina (who was truly entrancing as played by Veronica del Cerro) and trapped in a destructive relationship with his mother. It was unbelievable to me that any of the characters in the play would leave the scene of the action to observe the Shabbat. Nor was I comfortable with the attempt to weave Kabbalah and the Sabbath Queen into the play. I have not previously heard that the Sabbath Queen is also a Queen of the World (I mean that literally; I am not a devotee of Kabbalah or even Jewish mysticism, so I may not know), and that interfered with my ability to understand what Treplev’s play was about or why it was so upsetting. Nor do I think that making havdallah made any sense at all either in the play or on stage. (This discomfort about the Queen of the World on my part may be particular to me, of course: I like my Judaism straight unless an expansion “fits” or extends a cultural artifact into a realm that is otherwise unoccupied. God is King/Sovereign in our tradition and, except for an aberrant ancient mosaic, has no consort….certainly no feminine equal). I also thought the attempt to add havdallah to Seagull did not work on any level. Havdallah is too American Jewish, and otherwise obscure—-especially in 19th century Russia! What I liked about it (not in this context) was the imaginative linking/depiction of the departure of the Sabbath Queen to the havdallah service, something I’ve not seen done or referred to before. Great idea for an actual havdallah service or in a play that has a Jewish setting, I think.

On a personal level, I regret being critical because this is your play, but you asked for my view and so there it is!

Since you invited my views, I will add insult to injury and send you my 2 cents about “Seven Jewish Children….” (which I previously withheld partly because it seemed to me that others were giving you a piece of their minds, and partly on account of time pressures). I read the play, and about the play’s role in British Theater and England in The New Republic. I thought

a) the short screed was utterly lacking in aesthetic or theatrical merit [a ten minute play? come on….what can any “playwright” do in ten minutes of stage time; cf Neil Simon, Chechov!, let alone Shakespeare, Miller, and O’Neill]

b) it was only produced in London because hating and traducing Israel is so “in” there;

c) no Jewish supported institution should indulge itself in presenting such anti-Israel filth, expecially these days when anti0-Semitism is on the upswing and Israel bashing rivals soccer as the most well attended sport in the world*;

d) there’s no reason to “expose” anyone, Jewish or not, to such stuff. It cannot educate; it can only inflame….except for the already inflamed who will wallow in it. Being provocative is not enough for an institution with Theater J’s inspiring vision. Compare “The Accident.” It was challenging /and /artistic a/nd/ moving /and/ many-faceted /and /it portrayed a shameful attitude some, maybe many, Israelis have towards Muslims/Arabs. I thought it was one of Theater Js triumphs.

You’ve probably had enough of this to last a life-time, and I’ve long ago forgiven you for it. Forgive /me /for rubbing salt in what I hope was a wound! It will clear the air between us, at least from my perspective.

I do and will continue to support Theater J in my own necessarily modest way.

Best regards and keep up the good work you do (of which there’s plenty, obviously),

* Don’t misunderstand. I am not arguing that Jewish supported institutions must not be critical of Israel. Not for a moment would I maintain that. Artists have a vital role to play in keeping our heads on straight, and so do rabbis!

* * *
And my response:

>> I appreciate the honesty of your email. I’m glad you doubled-back to share your full feelings about our Middle East programming. We invested a tremendous amount of effort and energy in THE ACCIDENT (which I also adapted from a poor Britishized translation) and the fact that you understood the depths of that production means everything.

That you rejected our attempts to infuse and transform THE SEAGULL with our own inspiration is your right and reflects a mindset that I’ve heard from some others, whether or not they appreciated our community inquiry into SEVEN JEWISH CHILDREN. The Jewish community is, as ever, a many splendored and multi-faceted thing and we’ve clearly upset a portion of it, even while strengthening our standing with others both in and outside the community. I’m surprised and disappointed by certain hardening of hearts — but I don’t hear or read that in your email. you have your strong points of view both politically, culturally, and Jewishly and I’m just learning about these now. For me, Theater J’s work has never been stronger, nor reflecting of more talent and real investment (personally, materially). But the times they are a changing, and it’s important for me to keep my ear close to the ground and listen to what people are thinking and saying.

My wound is only on The Seagull’s meager box-office which is a wound that will be with us all season long. How related it is to “backlash,” I have no idea. We had a big hit right before this, but it may have been the result of bringing in a diferent audience.

I hope we stay in good communication.

And my rabbi friend’s response:

>> Thanks for your response. Of course we will stay in good communication! I consider it a privilege.
I hope the poor attendance at the Seagull is not a “backlash.” That would be tragic. I think [my wife] mentioned that the reviews were not encouraging? Wouldn’t that be an adequate explanation? Or maybe people are not wild about Chechov. You know your audience(s), however, so you’re in the best situation to draw conclusions. (Also it’s summer and lots of people are away…)