Cafe Conversation on IMAGINING MADOFF – Young’ns Respond!

Tonight we have a chance to talk with our audience after the show in the informal environs of our JCC Cafe, the Distrikt Bistro, where, joined with some of the cast, we’ll discuss Deb Margolin’s arresting, thought-provoking play. Students from the University of Michigan, from Notre Dame, and from University of California at Berkeley and Merced will also be attending. They’re all newly enrolled in my “Theater of Politics/Politics of Theater” course, and they’ll be responding to the play in the comments section below. And so can anyone else!

The play’s received a hugely warm reception from the Washington critical community and it’s playing and selling like a hit! Here are links from three of the latest reviews:

– from the Washington Jewish Week
– from the Washington Examiner
– from We Love DC

In our class session last week, after students had read (but had yet to see) the play, we had a spirited discussion about it and whether it mattered whether audiences sympathized, or identified with, or could see themselves within any of the characters; especially Madoff. We discussed the many different tactics artists employ in theatricalizing public figures and recent events. What’s the relationship between facts as they’ve happened and theatrical truth? Poetic and dramatic license? At what point — is there any point — when credulity is strained? We had a review before us to wrestle with — as we still waited for The Post review to appear, one week ago tonight. We discussed the journalistic protocol of reviewing a performance clearly not meant for reviewing purposes (the critic, Bob Mondello came on 9/3, ostensibly, we thought to do a feature for NPR, not review for the Washington City Paper —  but, in the end, the paper ran Mondello’s review from the 9/3 show;  a review based on a preview performance where 12 minutes of the show were mistakenly shorn because we skipped 3 pages of text!!! Now an accident like that happens only once every five (or twenty-five) years in a given theater company — but it happened to us, that one preview night and that one preview only!). Anyway, we were ashen about that preview, and our marketing director told Mondello, the only critic in the house that night, about the mistake. The City Paper was correct in pointing out that what was reviewed was in fact a preview performance, but didn’t/couldn’t note that something was missing (like three-and-a-half pages of text!). To both our playwright’s and to our production’s points of view, it was a preview performance that shouldn’t have been reviewed. But it was. And that’s posterity for ya!

What ensued on the City Paper site was a very interesting discussion involving the playwright, a local director, and ultimately a third WCP theater critic, talking about another issue entirely — Should the critic read a play either before or after seeing a show, but before writing the review? Is such a thing even possible? Or practical? Read the City Paper discussion here.

And for a number of fresh takes on the production, read the comments below!

As I write this now after the discussion downstairs, I can attest: It was a brilliant interchange in our cafe. Let’s see how the students report back on the entire evening!

29 thoughts on “Cafe Conversation on IMAGINING MADOFF – Young’ns Respond!

  1. Something I would have enjoyed talking about in the discussion was the amount of sexuality in the play. When I first read the play the amount of sexuality didn’t have a significant effect on me. It wasn’t that I would skim over it, but during the live performance it was just so much more in your face that it really forces the audience to make a judgment about its role and how it adds or detracts from the play.

    Personally I thought the sexuality played an essential role in the play. To me it gave the impression that the character was completely opening up and that his raw emotions were coming out. I also believe that the playwright wanted to use this raw sexuality to illustrate some of the motivations behind Madoff. To him, his entire scam was like a game and it excited him in a primal kind of way.

    On the opposite side of the argument I can completely understand how this sexuality may be somewhat of a turn off to audience members. Some might be uncomfortable or just not understand what it adds to the play. I would respond that in order to understand why the sexuality is in the play it is essential to get over being uncomfortable with the dialog about things like domination or wallets in weird places and understand that this sexuality is just meant to illustrate how basic the emotions Madoff is expressing are. These are the raw emotions that his character is built on and can really explain a lot about the motivations about why the character did what he did.

  2. Tonight’s performance of Imagining Madoff demonstrated talent, art, and above all, imagination. The light shined on the characters and illuminated the three small but profound sets on and off the stage. The skillful acting in the play not only gave the characters from the script distinct personalities and a new face, but it also helped us enter a fictional world of the Madoff Ponzi scheme. However, the experience that was even more profound and exciting than what happened on stage was what was occurring in the audience’s mind. Several people during the café conversation described their experience as reflective and engaging, and I felt that they truly appreciated and benefited from the play. On the other hand, I think many still left disappointed, wishing the play were written based on facts or gave a more accurate portrayal of Bernie; however, some later conceded that they understood the beauty of the play’s fiction and artistic freedom. If you analyze the importance, significance, and relation of the Jewish passages to the characters, it makes you think a lot about the world and human interactions. It also really makes you wonder about desire, deceit, innocence, and naïveté. This controversial play took the audience on a marvelous fictional adventure of Madoff’s pre- and post-imprisoned life, but more importantly, it helped us explore not only ourselves but also our own feelings toward the aforementioned human actions and characteristics.

  3. In response to Ben’s post about the role of sexuality, especially the gratuitous and blunt nature of the language: I felt it served to illuminate the inherent relationship between sex and money. In particular, the fantasy involving the wallet vagina comparison underscored how making and moving money provided Madoff with a similar pleasure to sex. The salmon soliloquy also subtly suggested that Madoff’s experience in executing his ponzi scheme was an, if not sexual, then at least a loving and ritualistic process.

    During the post play discussion, the debate over the obligation of the artist to at least incorporate the truth; I was reminded of one of my favorite authors Tim O’brien. He writes Vietnam War novels that are easily mistaken for first hand memoirs even though they are completely fictitious. His response to critics is that sometimes the facts of a situation don’t tell the real truth. In Imagining Madoff the same dichotomy involving fact and fiction pervades over and through the entire play. While the show drew on no formal research, Deb Margolin is still giving audiences a version of the truth, one that never happened, but one that informs the human experience. Obviously Madoff didn’t have an all night drunken morality debate with a famous Jewish poet, but at some point during all those years of client meetings, parties, and family holidays Madoff must have come close to letting his guard down and revealing his crimes, and at some point he must have had So even though the play is a fiction, it’s also truth.

  4. We’re off to some great comments here! Ian, I really like your last point especially. Just a tiny question — is there a typo (a missing word, or just a missing period) on your last line? Clarify that for me. You write, “…Madoff must have come close to letting his guard down and revealing his crimes, and at some point he must have had So even though the play is a fiction….” before the word “So” — what’s missing?

  5. ahh sorry. I’ve lost my train of thought for exactly that sentence but it was along the lines of basically Madoff probably had internal dialogues with himself, debating the morality of his actions, justifying himself with delusions that the investors were too trusting and deserved to get ripped off. Or really an endless list of possible rationalizations that all people go through when they lie and cheat. Undoubtedly these inner conflicts materialized inside Madoff’s own mind. So my point was that Margolin is taking us into a very real situation despite the fact that it never happened. And this is true not just for Madoff, but for a possible secretary, and really any of his close friends and colleagues. Plays that strive for poetry are never going to be realistic or factual because people don’t talk that way or act that way in “real life,” because life is less dramatic and more mundane, but the poetry is still there, beneath all that reality, and that’s why I’d say that one can find as much truth in a fictitious play, as in a biography.

  6. Imagining Madoff has set a precedent that will inspire some and disturb others. The use of a real public character and a public scandal as a commentary on human nature, and not as a fact-based documentary, has done to the theater wold what abstract art has done to the art world. It has lifted the art form itself to a level that empowers the audience to take this fictional representation of this factual character and make their own judgments as to the nature of the character Madoff in the context of religion, history, and human desires. At first I was very skeptical of this play and its methodologies. I felt it was negligent in that it utilized fictional narratives to illicit responses steeped in reality. Yet, on my way home from the play I was reading a local publication that was featuring a pastel by Lou Gagnon called ‘Into October’. It was a breathtaking impressionist pastel of trees in the fall. The piece looked nothing like the real field it was based on, in a realist sense, but it said much more about the place, and about nature as a whole, than a photograph ever could. I realized then and there, that this play was just that. It was a narrative not meant to represent Madoff in a realist sense but to represent what men like Madoff feel and how humans in general act in certain situations.

    After overcoming my issues with the play, I was struck by the beauty of the set and the staging of the characters. Since the play was not strong on plot or on action, the audience’s reaction to the dialogue is almost everything. The set and staging provide their own commentary of the play that supplements and substantiates the dialogue. The placement of the secretary on the carpet was perfect. She acted as a voice of the unspoken bystanders who suffered in the aftermath of the saga. She acted as a grounding element, splashing the audience with cold water when the dialogue between Madoff and Galkin became distant and deep. She also empowered the audience by making it feel as if she were testifying to us. It was as if she was answering our questions and lending us an insight into this man.

    The placement of the cell in the center of Galkin’s study was genius. Not only did the cold dreariness of the cell contrast beautifully with the warm power of the wood and the books, highlighting the contrasting characters, but it could also provide a commentary on Galkin’s mind. The study symbolizes Galkin’s mind with its books and expressions of religion. Perhaps it is the prison, that lies in the center of the room, that Galkin tries to keep his memories of the holocaust in, and yet his whole mind is build around them that they will always be with him. While this may be far-fetched, the placement of the cell on a lower level to the study makes it look as if Madoff rises out of his own state and into the higher state of this religious and historical mind.

    This play was my first in a long while and it was a great re-introduction to this beautiful art form.

  7. Sonja Kuftinec really opened my eyes to the spectrum of theater just weeks before my viewing of Imagining Madoff. She explains agonism in a similar fashion that most political theorists would. An agonist in democracy is one who believes that we should all express our disagreements collectively, not to be in search to destroy the others, but to coexist. I found that having a discussion over Imagining Madoff shows the number of interpretations and differences in feelings. Looking at this quarrel from an agonist standpoint makes me realize that we can all have our own opinions from the play while still respecting the art itself.

    I personally loved the dialogue exchange between Madoff and Galkin and like Elie, I felt like combination of the jail cell within Galkin’s study was an effective and powerful decision. Initially I was not convinced by the actor’s ability in portraying Galkin as a Holocaust survivor. I did not feel the emotion that I expected. But as I looked back on the play, I believe that the Abraham allegory adds so much to his character. As he tells this story to Madoff he explains that he, himself, could not kill his own son and that his faith is not as strong as Abraham’s. Could this act be one that reminds him of German soldiers taking orders to kill because of their faith in a general? It ultimately was painful to watch and to hear his memories of the Holocaust. I had to take a step back to realize the depth of this character, which in turn, highlights the difficulties in actually consuming the art of theater versus critiquing it.

    Overall, this was a very stimulating performance.

    • I also agree that the positioning of the jail cell “inside” Sol’s study was a great idea. As someone mentioned above, it gives a good contrast between the characters of Sol and Madoff. Sol strikes me as a warm, inviting person, much like his study with all the books and rich wood. Sol visited with Madoff until like five in the morning, always being incredibly kind to Madoff, despite all that has happened to him throughout his life. Madoff, on the other hand, was similar to his cell: cold. I think he shows just how cold he is when he said, “Fuck you. Fuck you who want to punish me. I’ve punished all of you and all your words and thoughts don’t touch me. Fuck you. My brother Peter was too soft, my sons too soft, too stupid. So it was up to me. And I did it all, I took it all, I had it all. And it wasn’t much. There’s all this talk. It doesn’t even matter. Fuck all of you. I’m not afraid of you.”

      I’m really intrigued by Elie’s idea about why the jail cell was lower than Sol’s study. Was it because Madoff would have to go up, literally and figuratively, out of his cell (where his deceitful, unethical actions landed him) and unto the moral leader Wiesel’s (I mean Sol’s) study? Or was it simply because they had to somehow show that the jail cell is not in the study? I agree that it is the former. The contrasts both aesthetically and in terms of characters are just screaming at you to notice them. As somehow who normally doesn’t notice stuff like that, I really noticed this time.

    • I didn’t even think about the positioning of the jail cell- great observation! Maybe it is a symbolism of some sort. Galkin’s library is sacred, a place of knowledge and peace, enlightenment, where as one, he writes the stories of the 6 million. The library is filled with wood furniture, which Madoff envies. In his home, Madoff only has drapes- in his home he is surrounded by flowers and linen and drapery- maybe there he is emasculated? The jail cell is dark, the prison of Madoff- the real prison is in his soul. He knows his lying is wrong, and that cell is his cold inside. Maybe this is too much symbolism than intended🙂.

  8. I’m happy that Elie compared the pastel, “Into October,” to the play’s mix of reality and fiction to artistically imagine and recreate something that already exists. This hybrid of art not only exists through theater but also in many other art forms. This phenomenon isn’t new either. My favorite painting from 1888, “Starry Night Over the Rhône,” beautifully depicts a starlit night similar to Vincent van Gogh’s other world-famous painting, “The Starry Night.” Of course, the real night’s sky that illuminates the Rhône could never emulate the painting’s beauty of the brilliant whirlpool stars made with van Gogh’s brushstrokes. Music artists make new renditions of original songs, horror films are based on “true facts,” and autobiographies embellish life stories. Although these forms of art somewhat false, they are still true art.

  9. The whole experience of Imagining Madoff was composed of more elements than I would have originally thought of. Before the play even began, the room was buzzing with excitement, and amidst the excitement in the air, I took my first look at the set. The way that the study popped out at the crowd, slightly askew from the stage itself, made me feel like I was sitting in on the actual conversations between the characters. Having the secretary’s interrogation on the floor right next to the audience also added to the involving nature of the performance. The way she talked to the crowd, it almost put us (as the audience) in the position of her interrogator, adding to the intensity of the story.

    Having read the script beforehand, I was a bit surprised in how the actual performance was misaligned with my own expectations. Upon seeing his character properly acted out, Madoff becomes an even more powerful individual. His driven nature and precise way of conversing shine through in Rick Foucheux’s performance. Through the first half or so of the play, I found myself thinking that Madoff was a bit of a greedy and unhappy old man, but as time passed, it became easier to see myself in his words. I think that the sexual nature that Ben talked about helps to humanize Madoff, as his various lusts show that he might not be the monster (at least emotionally) he is assumed to be. The secretary’s account of the events of the past become more and more stern as the play progresses, which adds a bit of internal confusion. On one side, Madoff has gone from being a bit of a pompous jerk to a relatable guy, but the severity of what his has done only gets worse. Sol fits in as the third part of the triangle in this play, and his understated wisdom helps not only the audience see who Madoff truly is, but he helps Bernie understand himself a bit better.

    Having not been to a live theater performance since I was 5 or 6, I was not expecting to get as much out of this play as I actually did. I truly enjoyed everything about Imagining Madoff, and if it is indicative of what to expect in the future, then this semester should prove to be very enjoyable.

  10. I have to say, unlike some of the other opinions that were expressed in the discussion, and I assume may be expressed through later blog posts, I feel that this play was in no way irresponsible with its content. When the topic of irresponsibility in the creation of the play without adequate fact-checking came up, I distinctly remember the ancient Greek playwright of Aristophanes. During his time as a playwright, he was criticized for his portrayal of people who were alive during the time of his plays. In one specific example, it was criticized that the trial and ultimate death of Socrates was in fact related to the portrayal of Socrates in Aristophanes’ play, The Clouds. Because theater had so much weight on public opinion (through directly seeing the play and gossip about it afterwards) in ancient Greece, this could be seen to be a valid argument.

    In our time however, I feel that the overall impact of theater on society is lesser. This is no fault to theater itself, but rather the emergence and access of many other artistic outlets in society over time.
    This is not, however, a negative aspect of theater. One could see this minority status as a much favorable role because it is able to interact with topics and offer viewpoints without being viewed as an authoritative factual source. This gives theater the opportunity to be considered a somewhat purer form of art, and as with any art form, open to interpretation by its audience. If it were to dominate the realm of public opinion, one could say that this play was irresponsible, but it does not. Theater grasps and interacts with topics that cannot necessarily be nailed down to fact, and should not be criticized for doing so. I applaud the play Imagining Madoff as just that, a pure artistic imagining of Bernie Madoff.

  11. Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
    I took the one less traveled by,
    and that has made all the difference.
    Robert Frost – the Road Unchosen

    Instead of Madoff, my favorite character is Solomon Galkin. I love his poems, I love his stories and I love his debate between little Bernie. However, the thing I love him for most is his understanding of life.

    “Life is planting a tree whose shadow you will never sit in”. When I heard this line for the first time, I got excited. I understand this line better when I link it to the lives of Bernie and Sol. Both of them spent their lives in planting trees. The tree grown by Sol is his poems, which reflects his wisdom and his life experience, while Bernie has planted a tree of wealth. The shadow of the tree by Sol is enjoyed by many people including me. However, Bernie’s tree falls and he lost everything. He wanted to sit in the shadow of the tree he planted but failed.

    How similar their early lives are. Little Bernie got lusted, same as Sol. Bernie described his desire for the sex. He imagined the scene that he had sex with women he saw on the street and his dream about his penis. Sol got lusted after a young lady who he met in the concentration camp. He imagine the time they spend together, even he firmly knew that she is dead. Sol managed to endure the humble life with his imagination on the girl. Their attitude to women makes me to believe: Life is driven by desire.

    The ends are also similar for both Bernie and Sol: They lose everything they have. (Sol lost the money of his synagogue instead of his own wealth, but it’s critical because he lost his reputation, which is important for a treasurer.) However, what makes the differences between Sol and little Bernie? It’s the conscience. Bernie lost his during the pursuit for power while Sol still preserved his own conscience. Both of them commented on an artwork viewed by Sol, which reveals a beautiful naked dead woman with her dead baby. Sol expressed his sorrow and anger to the creator of the artwork, who could save them instead of doing the painting. However, Bernie felt that he was the murder of these two people. He viewed himself as the creator of the art pieces. He would rather weigh more on his own success instead of sympathy for others. That’s why Bernie couldn’t understand the joke of “How many Jewish does it take to change a light bulb?” but Sol understood it deeply. Bernie’s focus is how to get the light bulb changed while Sol understands the cost of it.

    “How many Jewish does it take to change a light bulb?”

    “Six million and one “Sol answered, “Killed the six million and let the
    one left to do the change.”

    “The bigger and better his (novelists) lies and the more ingeniously he creates them, the more he is likely to be praised by the public and the critics,” said by Haruki Murakami. Novelists, as professional liars, lie to reveal the truth, so they are welcome among people. It’s the same for play writers. Deb Margolin is a good liar, because she reveals the truth: There is a Madoff and a Sol in our hearts. We pursuit relentlessly, but we understand “Life is a dream”.

    • I’m glad Wenjie mentioned the important “tree” quote. In addition to everything Wenjie noted, I would also note that Madoff fails to recognize the extent of his harm. He planted this awful tree of lies, deceit, and pain–some of which he will see in his lifetime, but most of the damage extends beyond him.

      I would like to hear more about the labeling Margolin as a “liar.” I think interpreting reality in a fictionalized setting remains quite different from lying. I suppose the word “lying” troubles me the most; I have a strong negative reaction to the word. Additionally, Margolin never claimed “Imagining Madoff” as a work of non-fiction. This play simply tries to offer one explanation for Madoff’s actions and give the audience a better idea as to why he conducted himself in such a manner.

      • Mark, I appreciate it you offer your perspective on the lying. Here is the original speech by Haruki Murakami. I hope it will make you feel ease with the word.

        http://www.haaretz.com/culture/arts-leisure/always-on-the-side-of-the-egg-1.270371

        Moreover, I would like to share my feeling about the Secretary. When first time I saw the show, I felt she was innocent. She was freaked out in the court. However, for the second time, I tend to believe she was trying to conceal something and pretended to be innocent. My question is: Was she really pretending to be innocent or not?

        Last but not the least; I am looking forward to a chance to talk to the performer of SOL. I am eager to listen to his understanding on the character.

  12. To say that Imagining Madoff was a thought provoking performance would be an understatement to the feelings, emotions, and insights that were inspired into the audience. What really amazed me is in the difference between how reading the script made me feel and then how the actual performance made me feel. In seeing the performance, I felt an attachment to this play, and the characters within this play, that I could not ascertain through just the script. Despite the various conversations in which we have engaged surrounding the subject of the complete fictionality of this story, seeing it performed helped enlighten me as to one possible angle from which Deb Margolin was coming. Obviously this play has a great deal to say about morality in general, which we have plainly discussed. The subject matter of the rhetoric between Madoff and Galkin clearly displays that. But what I was most taken aback at was how I felt this play also shed light on an internal struggle for one’s quest for morality. Throughout the first half of the performance I held these negative attitudes toward the character of Madoff. I didn’t care to see him continue performing, especially when he would use foul language. His character was abrasive to me and I felt uncomfortable with him. Instead, I felt this inclination towards Galkin and his persona, and how his calm, friendly portrayal reached out, grabbed my attention, and really brought me into the moment. Back and forth the two men would talk, but each time Madoff spoke I only felt unease. It didn’t strike me until the last half of the play that the reason I disliked Madoff’s character so much was because I could relate to him to such a large degree. His actions, his urges, his humanity…it seemed very real and almost too personal for me. I think there’s a part of Madoff’s character that everyone can relate to, but the fact that the public at large knows (at least now) what kind of guy he truly is, feeling that connection to him gives one a disturbing feeling. And then there was such a contrasting character like Galkin right next to him on stage, someone who seemed to be the essence of morality and nobility, arguing with him about questions of right and wrong. This, at least to me, was almost meant to highlight that internal fight that most people face between who they are and who they strive to be.

    • I have to completely agree with everyone who has mentioned the fact that reading the play and seeing the play were two very different experiences. The combination of the stage set-up, the music, the lights, and the various other details that make up the play offered insight that otherwise I would have never noticed.

      Personally, what stood out to me the most was the different ways I interpreted the sexual allusions in writing versus in the performance. When I first read the play, the sexual allusions appeared to have no real importance in the play, they seemed to me as they were unnecessary and added no substance to the play other than a level of vulgarity. However, after struggling through the playwright and going to see the performance on Thursday I was able to walk away with an entirely new understanding and appreciating for these allusions. I came to realize that the raw conversations about dead women’s breasts and wallet vaginas made the viewer uncomfortable, but uncomfortable in the sense that it made the viewer take a minute and analyze the question of morality that is constantly brought up throughout the play. I came to realize, as the actress mentioned in our cafe conversation, that this play was more important not so much because of what was said or done on stage, but for how those actions and ideas forced the audience to become enveloped in the play and it drag the viewer into the conversation of morality.

      Thus, although I struggled with many of the ideas of the play, in the end I was able to walk away understanding that it was the complexity of the play, the constant pushing of the play writer that made the play so memorable and gave us so much to talk and analyze as a group.

  13. Imagining Madoff led me down an interesting process of thought as I engaged in conversations of humanity, morality and many grey areas of life that are rarely up for open discussion on “behind closed doors” society. In my opinion, the most important elements of any story are the characters, and how relatable they are to a given group of respondents. The tension I developed watchingMadoff and Galkin and most certainly the Secretary’s internal struggles allowed me to reflect on immorality in my own life, and the culture around me. I wholeheartedly believed actress Jennifer Mendenhall when she stated that the most action in the room is in the audience and what’s happening in our minds. For example, the play brought up a very stunning idea of “humanizing” Madoff by showing his insecurities with certain characteristics that aren’t necessarily accepted today. His sexual vices and constant references to desires less favorable to some of the audience members (myself included) were indeed the moments that made him feel more relatable. On the opposing spectrum, Galkin was almost a saint in every way, but the moments in which he seemed to wander from seemingly moral perfectionism (Some of those moments included his admitted shame of adoring and imagining a deceased woman, or the way in which he still desired Madoff to keep his personal funds) are the very same moments that made him most memorable, and ultimately applicable to one’s own life. In the end, I find that the question “Why did Madoff do it?” has the simplest answer: he, like any of us, is only human. The moments in which he was the most exposed (or, as many people stated in the talk-back following the play, the “raw moments of the play”) hinted at the fact that no one stands equal to perfection, and to host unethical practices is but another of many human qualities.

    “It’s not like he killed anyone!” the Secretary shouted. The play was very good at making me feel perfectly fine, at certain times, for rooting for Madoff – he was just a guy like me playing a game but of course with much higher stakes. Any moment where Madoff recited the line “Life is planting a tree whose shadow you will never sit in” excited me, and I haven’t figured out why that is yet. Quite possibly because all he wished to do was find the rewards of his own effort, a very understandable point. I hope I’m not a menacing terror or the rise, but the play made Madoff very understandable for me.

  14. As I was riding the Metro the night before our classes viewing of the play, I overheard a conversation from a couple of women talking about a play they had just seen. So, being the curious person I am, I look at the program that these women were holding, and I see the artwork to “Imagining Madoff.” After reading the reviews from the Washington Post and other newspapers, I wanted to get an opinion from an ordinary theatre goer who likes art but do not confuse me with foreign theatre lingo. So, I jumped into the conversation, asking them their thoughts on the play. For a few stops, we went into such topics as the quality of the acting and the beauty of the stage. From the sounds of it, I was in for an artistic treat the next night.

    Fast-forward to the night of the show. As I was sitting, watching the show, I could obviously see the beauty of the stage (from the extravagance of the study to the unadorned nature of Madoff’s jail cell), and the great acting. However, as soon as the play started to get going, I stopped thinking about the aesthetics of the stage and focused on the questions that this particular play raised. I completely agree with the lady in the back of the room during our discussion who believed that “Imagining Madoff” was a morality play which highlights the problems with placing ultimate trust in a person. This theme is prevalent throughout the play, and I think it is an incredibly pressing issue in the world we live in today.

    The secretary, for instance, stresses her trust in Madoff throughout her monologues. For example, in the beginning of the play, she says, “I never asked…I…never asked many questions. I was told not to answer any questions. Except Mr. Madoff’s questions.” She trusts her employer so much that she always does what he tells her to do, while never questioning him on some of his questionable demands (like the private 17th floor, why she should never tell anyone anything, etc.). She placed so much trust in Madoff, and she lost everything because of it.

    Another theme throughout the play which highlighted the problems with ultimate trust in people was Sol’s holocaust experience. The guards in the camps placed blind trust in their superiors, and because of this, committed grave human rights abuses and did atrocious things to fellow human beings. Their ultimate trust was was explained by Sol when he said, “What it means to blindly follow orders! I was the victim of men who blindly followed orders! I was the victim of men who just did what the ba’al, the false God Hitler told them to do!” In writing this, I struggled with myself on whether Sol’s holocaust experience was merely a character attribute or an actual theme Margolin wanted us to relate to the main themes of the play, including the problems of placing ultimate trust in people. In the end, when viewing the play through the lens of a morality play, I believe that it might have been the latter.

    The argument between Sol and Madoff was the epic crescendo to the theme of trust. Madoff became visibly angry as the two men transitioned their discussion about Abraham to a discussion about trust. In the midst of the argument, Sol says, “I’ve learned, dear friend, that there are voices you should trust and voices you must not! I’ve learned what a complicated, sacred thing is trust!”. This comment prompts Madoff to almost give himself away, almost tell Sol that the pious, trusting man had put all his trust in a crook who had no intention in getting returns for his synagogue’s investments. Madoff goes as far as to say, “But you have faith in me. Listen to me! Listen to me!…. Listen to me! You’re living in a dream world! You don’t even know which world you’re in, you don’t know what you’re talking about!”

    In these three examples, Margolin shows the problems with putting absolute trust in people. In the first example, the secretary put complete trust in Madoff, never asking questions of her employer. In the end, she loses her livelihood and the job she had been doing for years. In the general theme throughout this play, guards and other Germans put their complete trust in their superiors, including Hitler. They committed gross injustice and in the end, many were punished severely for it. Lastly, Sol and Madoff’s discussion of Abraham and trust highlighted the problems with putting blind trust in any one person. Sol believed that he had put trust in the correct “voice,” and in the end, lost not only his money but his synagogues as well. Every example of one person putting his or her trust in another person ended up badly for the trusting person. This is not a coincidence, for I believe that Margolin may have done this to highlight the point that one should not put blind trust in another.

  15. In recent reviews of Imagining Madoff, critics speculate that the play included an unnecessary amount of theologically.
    After viewing the play this past Thursday, I believe the theology included in the dialogue was crucial to understanding the complex character of Bernie Madoff. Throughout the play we begin to see Madoff as a man who thrives off of exercising his intelligence. Madoff uses several analogies to explain the high he gets from manipulating situations. He compares money to fast swimming salmon or self-multiplying viruses and speaks about the excitement in the act of gaining money rather than the excitement of possessing money.
    I found the theological references in the scene between Sol and Madoff where Madoff nearly confesses his crimes out loud to be particularly powerful. The use of the parable of God testing Abraham by telling him to kill his only son, Isaac, was the perfect tool to explain Madoff’s inner motivations.
    In this particular scene, Madoff is once again driven by the need demonstrate his intelligence. He must prove Sol wrong. Madoff knows he has life figured out; he has out-smarted all the other idiots in the world including Sol. He is desperate to prove to Sol that in life you cannot trust anyone.
    In the process of making his argument, Madoff basically lays the truth out on the table for Sol to connect the dots,

    “Wouldn’t you, wouldn’t any man, still follow the leader blindly without knowing where he was going? Isn’t this story an advertisement for doing that? For Chrissakes, I run a business, and people trust me! My funds are run under tight security, no one knows what the fuck I’m doing with their money! They trust me! They just trust me! I don’t tell anyone, Sol. You trust me. What have you learned from that story?”

    Yet, Sol does not hear the point Madoff is trying to prove or rather what he has revealed about himself. The irony is realized when Sol continues the story speaking now about Satan and says, “such is the punishment of a liar – even when he tells the truth, no one listens.”
    Madoff sinks quietly into his chair in shock that he almost gave himself away. He was lucky that Sol had not been truly listening. The very genius that led to Madoff’s success almost ruined it all.
    In this moment we, as the audience, are able to gain a more developed understanding for Madoff’s character and his inner motivations. He acts based on his need to have power and intelligence over others. The theology in this scene and throughout the play is designed to aid the audience in reaching this understanding.

  16. As a reader and fan of Elie Wiesel’s books and poems, I was interested to see how he would be portrayed in this play after hearing the origin story from Professor Roth. I thought that the character of Solomon Galkin was a very wise man, who was pretty naive at the same time. It was most likely his experiences that made him that way. He really did have an innocence and personality that would make anyone want to reveal their deepest secrets to him, like Bernie Madoff felt.

    After reading the play, I anticipated Bernie Madoff to be much more intimidating then he really was, which made him easier to connect with as an audience member. Madoff’s view of himself also made that less difficult. After performing such corrupt actions, he did not come off as overly arrogant or selfish, which I found surprising.

    Additionally, after reading the play, I really enjoyed the overall interaction between Madoff and Galkin. Being able to watch these very opinionated Jewish men compete in conversation was very entertaining. Especially, when it came to morals. It was not surprising that Madoff and Galkin would have different views of life because they clearly lead two very dissimilar lives in the past, present, and future.

    I believe one of the best parts of the play is its title, “Imagining Madoff”. It seems to explain so much of the play in two words. This really is a story dreamt up by Deb Margolin of how the interaction could have played out between Wiesel and Madoff. Going into the play with this mind set made it so much easier for me to understand.

  17. A unique aspect of the play, “Imagining Madoff”, is its use of staging. The staging indicates a change of space and time in a play, but “Imaging Madoff” weaves together all changes of space and time producing a play that reads as a flowing poem instead of a hard chapter book.

    When reading the play’s script, prior to seeing it performed on stage, I imagined the three “sets,” the jail cell, study, and court room, as three separate entities, and for those of you who have seen it performed know, the set is anything but separate. Madoff’s jail cell is smack in the middle of Sol’s study and the secretary is off stage, yet close enough to the two men to signify a direct connection between the three. None of the three sets have walls. Each set blends into the next forming a sense of unity.

    At first glance I was leery about the staging wondering if it would confuse the audience. Once the play began, there was nothing confusing about it. Instead, the staging did a brilliant job of signifying the closeness and connectedness of each character. To me, placing the jail in the middle of the study signified how each man’s life was a foundation for the other. Madoff was using Sol’s money in part of his get rich scheme and Sol was dependent on Madoff to keep his temple thriving. Not only were they part of the other’s life foundation, they effected what the other thought, felt, and said throughout the entire play.

    The staging not only signified the intertwining of the men, but also lent its self beautifully to time change because there are no walls diving any of the sets. As the play goes back and forth from Madoff in jail speaking to a reporter, to Madoff and Sol in his study enjoying a long drunken night together, to the Secretary testifying, time shifts effortlessly. Madoff slinks from his cell to the study with ease and the secretary is always in the same position she ended in ready to continue her story erasing the hard lines between time. This aspect of the play is so important because yes the events are distinct, but every time a character speaks they are adding to the story in order to produce the whole. If the characters were running on and off the stage to individual sets, a sense of individual chapters would have been established instead of a flowing poem

  18. Let me first say that I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to see “Imagining Madoff” twice. While I enjoyed the play both times I was also able to focus on different aspects of the performance each time I saw it. On the first showing, before I had read the script, I was very taken aback by the character of Bernie Madoff. He seemed vulgar, and a bit contradictory. For example he professes it wasn’t about the money but at the same time talks about how much sweeter having the money made his life. Even his confrontation with Galkin seemed more straightforward. I understood them as moral foils and not much else.
    On my second viewing I tried to understand the motivations of Madoff more carefully and I was surprised to find that he came off as much more human than the first time I watched the performance. The scene in which Madoff describes the money as salmon did serve to provide some insight into his character. He explains that it’s in the movements of the money and the ability to snatch it as it goes by that inspired him to commit his crime. But, strangely this wasn’t what made him seem most real to me in the second showing. Instead it was the confrontation with Galkin. He almost confessed not because of moral repentance but because of a want to win. His drive to win the argument, to even expose himself, seemed so flawed and realistic of a trait that it convinced me more than anything else in the play of the characters authenticity. Perhaps it tells something about me that I relate more to that then to his salmon analogy. Regardless, the plot hinged around that moment and more me it made the play.

  19. Zach, thank you for doing such a fantastic job summing up my feelings towards Madoff. Throughout the entire play, Madoff irritated me and I couldn’t quite put my finger on the reason as to why. Zach successfully identified my problem with Madoff: he’s that kind of person too consumed with himself and his own personal success to show anything resembling empathy and care for others. Madoff’s character especially frustrated me because he was able to act in such regard even in the presence of such a wonderful, empathetic person as Galkin.

    Even though I grew impatient with Madoff, I thought the actor did a great job with the role. He successfully channeled Madoff’s emotions and feelings, or lack thereof. Additionally, the actor who portrayed Galkin blew me away. When I read the play, I envisioned Galkin as the moral conscience Madoff neglected. Galkin gave Madoff plenty of opportunities to open up to him and confess his sins. Moreover, the secretary gave Madoff a similar avenue to acknowledge his wrongdoings. Ultimately, Madoff’s lack of true character overcame him.

    While I read the play, I kept thinking to myself “why did the playwright include the character of the secretary?” It wasn’t until I watched the play that I came to understand that the secretary serves as the play’s connection to the audience. The secretary feels the power and emotions of the play right alongside the viewers. At many points throughout the play, the secretary verbalized my internalized thoughts. Above all, I thought the scene designer effectively placed the secretary extremely close to the audience to show her significant role in the play.

    Overall, I had an amazing first DC theater-going experience. “Imagining Madoff” told a powerful story consisting of many themes that continue to resonate in our society. I look forward to the many plays we will be attending in the near future.

  20. I think I remember Ari saying, “write like you are not in class”- so here it goes!

    This play was brilliant! Sure, it was uncomfortable to sit 90 minutes with little leg room- but the captivating performance kept my mind racing to remember “quotable” lines, laughing and scared at certain parts. From references to the story of Abraham, to beautiful analogies about life, death, sex and thing in between- I cannot help but want to praise everyone that created this art.

    Imagining Maddoff proves the hunger to perform and connect. Regardless of the controversy-this was artistic freedom. Key word: imagining. Yes, there was a name we recognized, but this imaginary conversation did what great stories do- they made us believe. It engulfed me, angered me, saddened me, even disgusted me. All this sexual references- this man sick! He knew lying was wrong- maybe he was a lost soul?

    Actors did a brilliant job- the frightened eyes of the secretary, booming voice of Madoff, and fatherly tone of Galkin. The set design- brilliant again! An offstage secretary, who never left the scene (+ great light work)- made the character a bridge between audience and stage (or should I say this Madoff who did “unthinkable” crimes). Wonderful details- a toilet/basin driven in from NY by Ari himself, a bookshelf with so many books. And one of my favorite parts- lighting. From taking the story through time and space, this was an essential part of performance- great job!

    So here was my raw reflection of the performance. I loved it!
    Also- great staff at theater J, and check out the cafe downstairs😉.

    Munmun

  21. “Two things appear to be near you and yet are far from you, appear to be far from you and yet are near you. Repentance appears to be near you but is far from you, appears to be far from you but is near you. Death is near you but it can be far from you, appears to be far from you but is near you.” –Solomon Galkin, “Imagining Madoff”

    The prolific sayings that served as the underlying motif of the play were both present, and out of reach to me. Bernie Madoff is near to all of us, yet far from all of us. His destruction of countless families and livelihoods represent a monstrosity that is unimaginable, yet his human desires in “Imagining Madoff” are both real thought provoking.

    What I enjoyed most about “Imagining Madoff” is the play’s accessibility. Bernie Madoff’s character expressed his deepest human desires throughout the play. His descriptions of his wife Ruthie were particularly affecting in that his familiarity and comfort with her shone through. The viewer also plays witness to his growing attachment to Solomon Galkin.

    Solomon Galkin’s character is fascinating to the audience because the viewer sees a man of enormous integrity side by side with an imposturous crook. They drink, they talk about life and religion, and Solomon’s purity of heart is visibly damaging to Bernie. The two most riveting scenes in the play occur in Soloman’s study. The first: when Solomon wraps Bernie in the t’fillin (Jewish phylacteries), and thus, forcibly exposing Bernie to a spiritual sensation. Bernie doesn’t like to be touched, he says this meekly before Sol is wrapping his entire arm, but Sol seems to take no notice. This act of domination and elemental sensation are so unaccustomed to Bernie that he gets an erection.

    The second explosive scene in Soloman’s study (and climax of the play) occurs when Bernie comes an inch away from revealing his secret. In a moment of passionate, drunken argument, Bernie is trying to convince Sol that no one should be trusted blindly, and in his ardor to prove the old scholar wrong he almost reveals himself as a liar. While watching the play, I could feel myself witnessing this scene through a lens. It seemed to me that Bernie almost revealed the truth in an act of forgiveness, and I wanted that to be true. However, in the post-discussion with the actors it became clear to me that Madoff’s character had one goal in mind in the climatic scene: to prove himself correct at all cost.

    During the post-discussion and my realization that some human beings are capable of the type of deceit and selfishness of Bernie Madoff, I also began to think of the pivotal interactions between Sol and Bernie as interactions between fire and ice. Both men are held in high regard and revered, but the clarity of their souls is a polar opposite.

  22. The play “Imaging Madoff” has had a very controversial and fascinating history from its initial creation by Deb Margolin all the way until its opening night. Although there are lots of things that this play has to offer as far as points of interest, its overall message and debut where by far the most notable for me.

    During our classes discussion of the play before and after we saw it, the fact that the author did not use much factual information did no sit right with many people. Even though the title of the play is in fact “IMAGING Madoff” it did not register well with people that a play based on a real public figure had little to no facts about the person’s actual life. Although I don’t like the idea of a playwright fabricating a “true story”, I do think that the over all message of the play is much more important then weather the character is based on facts or not. The writer does a good job of exploring the mind of a person, who, many consider to be a monster and humanizing him. She does this by offering (made up) tidbits about his childhood, family life, and inner most desires. What I take away from the story is that morality is a battle that everyone has to struggle with whether you’re a saint, (Solomon Galkin) a sinner (Madoff) or an innocent (The secretary)

    Another thing we talked about after seeing the play was the portrayal of the secretary in the play appose to her character in the script. I think that the character of the secretary in the live production was a key component in making this key point come alive for me. In comparison, surprisingly, I felt that the character of the secretary was much more animated live then on the page. A character that gets lost on the page in the play is really given more importance and I think it could have to do with the fact that the actress was so close to the audience the entirety of the play. The audience was very up close and personal with her every move and facial express, and I appreciated that.

  23. I am really happy that Ellen brought up the climax of the play. Another one of the aspects of this play that most intrigued me was that the play never truly climaxes. Madoff never admits the truth to Sol and faces the consequences. It comes close, but in the end Madoff just buries it away deeper inside of himself. I think that it is extremely frustrating and hard for the audience to understand why, but it provides the gateway to the conversation about humanity and morality that this play should invoke. This conversation, in my opinion, was one of the main reasons why the playwright wrote the play. If “Imagining Madoff” had a traditional ending and Madoff confessed to his sin the audience would not leave the theater frustrated and trying to figure out why. In my opinion it is the audience members who can get over this frustration and attempt to examine why Madoff didn’t open up who can understand meaning of the play. I applaud the playwright’s audacity to not give the play a traditional ending and truly believe that the play would not have been nearly as thought provoking with one.

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