As Rehearsals Convene for THE ADMISSION, The Morality of War is Contested Cross Town in MOTHER COURAGE

We’ll have plenty of time to update and reflect on the momentousness of what’s before us as we begin work with a fabulous troupe of actors on Motti Lerner’s new play, The Admission. For now, we share observations about a mountain of a classic on a related theme that we all took in earlier this week, Berthold Brecht’s Mother Courage performing in the round at Arena Stage. That common theme is a reckoning with the brutal realities of war; call it the broken morality of war –and is it true that even a “just” war of Independence — even the most heroic of wars which brought a country into existence might have elements of brutality that test the conscience? — The ironic codes of honor during wartime skewed by the related imperatives to both survive and make a buck so that one might eat are laid out in Brecht’s meditation on war, and they’re voiced in an entirely different, yet related way, in the theatrical meditations Motti Lerner makes in play after play as he looks back at a passel of Israel’s wars.

What do our uninitiated student subscribers make of a visit to the bombed out crater of a brilliant set over at Molly Smith’s house and her highly imaginative production of Mother Courage? What to make of Brecht’s principles of Epic Theatre and Alienation devices as we experience them unfold? We hadn’t a chance to prepare, really. So we’ll debrief in our comments and reflect on the highly theatrical nature of this production.

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Below, a blurb, from the opening page of the published edition of Mother Courage by Berthold Brecht, a version adapted for The National Theatre of London by Sir David Hare in 1995.

A lone woman, Anna Fierling, tries to achieve the irreconcilable aims of making money and keeping her family alive during the nightmare of the Thirty Years War.

At the end of a century ravaged by war on an unprecedented scale, Berthold Brecht’s great masterpiece of silence and survival seems only to have grown in stature since its Zurich premiere in 1941…

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At the beginning, Mother Courage seeks out war.  She is not in any sense an innocent victim.  On the contrary, she travels to seek out one war before she moves on to the main conflict (The Thirty Years War) in which the play is generally set. She goes in order to make a living, and armed with a view of things which at this point she believes will see her through. But the whole point of the play is to show the process whereby this acuteness in her becomes redundant, sick, and finally absurd.

Mother Courage finds a war, joins it, goes over to the other side (the Catholics) and then prospers. While she prospers, her philosophy is at its most witty, confident and astute. Yet as the war grinds on, and her children are taken from her, and she crosses back over to her original side (the Protestants), so poverty and waste rob her of the ability to speak about what is happening to her. As the play progresses, and the bodies pile up, her cleverness no longer fits the situation. Her dazzling insights about the nature of war come to seem harsher and more irrelevant. Her brilliance becomes a perverse kind of craziness, stubborn, defiant, and self-willed. But if her way of coping no longer seems adequate, whose does? Katrrin’s heroic resistance, though successful at one level — the town is woken — also results in her own death.

If I were to propose an alternative title for the play, it would be “The Silencing of Mother Courage.”

What are some other complementary clauses we might afix to the title Mother Courage?
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2 B 2G (intro to Najla Said)

Introduction to Najla Said’s “Palestine” at the Sabeel Conference in Washington, DC, October 2, Shiloh Baptist Church

Thank you for inviting me to this important conference and for the privilege of introducing a dynamic new voice, an exciting theatrical talent, a lively internet personality; the formidable Najla Said and her play PALESTINE.

I’ve been asked to give this brief preamble, perhaps because of my position at Theater J, the professional resident company of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center; a theater that invites a multiplicity of voices onto its stages to lend authentic perspective to the huge variety of portraits of life in the Middle East, be they set in religious Israel, secular Israel, Christian Palestine, Islamic Gaza, Lebanon, Egypt, Afhganistan, Pakistain, Iraq or Iran, all areas which have been depicted on our stages (in mainstage productions or in developmental readings) and discussed in post show panels.

As a producer, I can admire Najla’s Said’s play for its extensive developmental pedigree, having been workshopped at both New York Theatre Workshop where Najla is an esteemed Usual Suspect and at New York’s Public Theatre, where the piece premiered in their New Works Now Festival. I can admire Najla’s extensive experience as an actress on stage and screen.

Or perhaps I was asked to introduce Najla in my capacity as co-founder of the Peace Café – a forum bringing together Muslims, Christians and Jews to reflect on the nexus of art and politics in candid but-always-civil discourse, as participants feed on both Middle Eastern food and personal narrative fare in the form of poetry, theatrical presentations, first hand reporting, film clips, or outreach programs for young people. As a Peace Café programmer, I can admire Najla’s play for its ecumenism; its insistence on seeing people as complicated beings and not merely talking position papers or symbolic political placards. Najla’s M.O. is humanistic; her impulse is to be unflaggingly candid, revealing, self-deprecating, self-questioning, life-celebrating

Or perhaps I was invited to introduce a fellow playwright, a colleague, and as such I admire Najla for having succeeded in FINISHING a full-length play with an amazingly rounded journey; with a beginning middle and end, infused with impish humor, a high dose of politically incorrect candor, ideological irreverence; sensual insouciance, shrewdly seducing us and then provocatively thrusting the sharp dagger of insight – even when that insight is provocative and disarming; discomforting; even when the play stops seducing and instead confronts; the reversal of strategy, like the character’s own reversal of mindset; the moment of peripety — the technical term we Aristotelian playwrights use to describe a sudden transformation informed by intellect and logic. There are such moments in this journey and they are arresting.

In the end, I feel most welcome here not as a theater producer, programmer or playwright, but as a Second Generation American, a child of displaced refugees, immigrants who lost their homes (and large parts of their respective families) in Hitler’s Germany and came to an American Diaspora with dreams of someday returning to an Israel that had welcomed them after WWII, both before and after Israel became a state; Continue reading

Week in Review (NY Times + Our Times Too)

Amazing articles in the Sunday papers today. Grateful to be able to catch up with things finally. Some thoughts and some links:

Gaza Notebook: The Bullets in My In-Box” by ETHAN BRONNER is an article I responded to and identified with a great deal, as it seems to have summed up my position as a writer/adapter on the ALI SALEM PROJECT. But given the overall integrity of Bronner’s position, and the important work he and other journalists are doing even as they get pilloried on both sides–on all sides–it seems all the more compelling to allow that stranded-in-the-middle interlocutor’s voice to have a place in the story-telling structure of the ALI SALEM narrative, with Ali as the dominant voice. This was the discovery of our brief 12/29/08 reading of new scenes from the project, and it’s what I’m returning to next month in advance of the March reading of the play with Charter Theatre Company. Incorporating the ever-expanding timeline of the work–from Oslo 1994 to Gaza 2009–won’t be as hard as I once thought, especially seeing as how that time management worked out successfully–finally–in PETER… (THE WOLF IN PETER, that is.) Anyway, an article and a conundrum worth contemplating.

And quickly to add that the conversation with EPIC THEATRE’S Zak Berkman was a joyful bounty of good news and great feedback from the 1/18 readings at Manhattan Theatre Club.  Suffice to say, we are moving forward into an ambitious future.

More good links:
Frank Rich on the misbegotten “theatrical criticism” of Obama’s inauguration speech. Essentially saying that the new Prez decided to pullback from the oracular pyrotechnics and go sober, go somber, prepare us for the true challenges that lie ahead and not get too fizzy with celebrity worship; to not lead by virtue of a cult of personality, but to enlist all citizens in a truth campaign based on mature messages from the frontline.

Just as compelling, and important for our theater during our Middle East Festival, is Tom Friedman’s op-ed piece, This Is Not a Test, which has this prophetic line, “So if you believe in the necessity of a Palestinian state or you love Israel, you’d better start paying attention. This is not a test. We’re at a hinge of history.” As my pal Wendy C. Golberg likes to say, “Word.” Word up.

And speaking of theater that speaks of the truth when at war and the challenges of making a socially relevant theater bankable, read “Of War, Peace and Paying Customers” By PATRICK HEALY, which will remind you a lot of our dramas while producing the powerful Bosnian War play, HONEY BROWN EYES, which will be published in February by American Theatre Magazine.

There’s more great stuff on the op-ed page. “A Liberal Translation,” by TIMOTHY GARTON ASH, who also talks of Mr. Obama’s inaugural address which presented, in substance, a blend of classical constitutional and modern egalitarian liberalism. The thing, but never the word. Read about it here.

And before I talk about last night’s amazing run-through of THE ACCIDENT, two last articles in the Business section to commend:

“The Talented Mr. Madoff” by JULIE CRESWELL and LANDON THOMAS Jr. discusses two versions of Bernie Madoff’s life story which have emerged following his arrest: the Wall Street statesman, and the high-finance charlatan. Read about it here

And this piece, which I read with my daughter, is a totally clear presentation of the mess we got into with Credit Default Swaps, and how we get the hell out it too. “Time to Unravel the Knot of Credit-Default Swaps” By GRETCHEN MORGENSON is essential reading that will, alas, make you very angry at how we ever got to this place. All these articles point to a disgust we’ll all be targeting at Wall Street and may help throw interest and energies back onto our nation’s capital and away from a really kind of dangerous and unmoored capitalist seaport, which is to say Lower Manhattan, and who needs it running us into the ground?

Finally, THE ACCIDENT. A totally powerful run-through last night. I said this to the cast and to brilliant director Sinai Peter, just after it was concluded: “You’ve made us see Israel as a metaphor for the human condition.” Now figure that one out.

Or  better, I’ll parse that a bit more next time. Happy Sunday.

Believe It Or Not (2008) – It Was a Very Good Year (Our Best)

If we had time today to reflect instead of crazy prep for two shows tonight — the 7:30 sold out performance of SHOLOM ALEICHEM: LAUGHTER THROUGH TEARS (our 12th sold out show out of 13 performances thus far), followed by the 10 PM New Years Eve concert of Serendipity 4 (Theo Bikel’s quartet comprised of the equally estimable Tamara Brooks, Merima Kljuco, and Shura Lipovsky) –we’d be perusing through this year’s blog entries–not to mention box office night end reports–to recount Theater J’s most popular and financially successful season ever. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? In the midst of this economic turmoil and all our nation’s–not to mention Jewish community’s–financial instability, Theater J offerings were never more boisterously attended, nor more remunerative. Dare we review?

SHLEMIEL THE FIRST: A musical derided by Mr. Marks as “Jewish Hee-Haw” eclipsed projections, built an enthusiastic following, divided our regulars, and made us smile every single night as audiences lingered for the klezmir jam session between the fabulous trio of top-flight musicians.

JUDY GOLD in 25 QUESTIONS… Swore like a sailor. At all of us in the office. All the time. And occasionally on stage. And we loved her all the same. And she brought box office gold too. And tons of mothers and daughters and grand daughters. She’s got a new show that just opened in Boston. She says I’m an anti-Semite if I don’t book her tomorrow. I might have too.

THE PRICE: The Proskys broke all box office records during their historic run–until Sandra Bernhard broke those (in her differently historic run). Until Bikel smashed hers. It’s been that kind of season. But Bob Prosky was irreplaceable. And his performance as Solomon, unforgettable.

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