Monday, September 30, 2019

Struggles and Thrills: What the Jews Believe and Passengers

Benim Foster and Logan Weibrecht in What the Jews Believe. (Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware)

Mark Harelik’s ambitious new play, What the Jews Believe (Berkshire Theatre Group), juxtaposes three religious positions. Dave (Benim Foster) insists that his twelve-year-old son Nathan (Logan Weibrecht) prep for his Bar Mitzvah, though they are the only Jewish family in a small Texas town and the nearest rabbi – Rabbi Bindler (Robert Zukerman), who married Dave and his wife Rachel (Emily Donahoe) – is in El Paso and can come to tutor the boy only infrequently. Dave has the cockeyed notion that somehow Nathan can learn his Torah portion from recordings made by Dave’s grandfather. His idea of Judaism is inextricably bound up with his feeling about family – his determination that the influence of his father shouldn’t die out, especially in a place where everybody else is Christian, even though (somewhat unconvincingly) the family doesn’t appear to observe any other Jewish customs. Dave’s holding onto this plan, despite the apparent hopelessness of the boy to learn the Hebrew, appears to be connected to the fact that Rachel is dying of cancer. She takes advantage of Bindler’s visit to express her despair over her condition and query him about its spiritual meaning. When he tries to present a Jewish philosophical stance on suffering and faith, Dave hustles him out of the house; his answer to her anguish is to comfort her with love – that is, again to substitute family for what a traditional Jew would see as faith. It’s her Aunt Sarah (Cynthia Mace), a convert to Christian Science in childhood as a result of, she believes, a miracle that saved her life, who offers Rachel an alternative, and overnight Rachel, too, becomes a Christian Scientist.

The scene where Sarah brings Rachel to what she calls the light is compelling, and there are certainly enough ideas in What the Jews Believe to animate a drama. But Harelik is his own worst enemy. He doesn’t always think through the behavior of his characters, so it’s sometimes implausible or downright nutty. Are we really supposed to buy that Dave, who runs a successful store that he inherited from his father, thinks you can learn a Bar Mitzvah portion from an old record of an antiquated European text made by a man with a heavy German-Jewish accent? Why does Sarah keep insisting that it’s raining out when it isn’t? Moreover, Harelik hews to the principle that you shouldn’t settle for a line or two when you can use twelve. The dialogue is almost obsessively overwritten. And whenever Nathan’s on stage, it’s marinated in cutesy humor that’s supposed to tell us how closely bonded the kid is with both his parents, though you might have wondered why he didn’t outgrow those awful “knock, knock” jokes – there must be forty or fifty of them – by the time he turned eight.

Nathan narrates the play, but it’s not clear that Harelik sees his character arc as central to it – even at the end, when he talks to us as an adult raising his own son. He gives Nathan what he must have meant to be the most powerful scene, where he gets angry enough to smash the records. But though this moment references the greatest American play ever written about the Jewish experience, Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing!, it’s insufficiently prepared for, so it has no resonance; it’s just a quotation.
Harelik also directed the play, and in that capacity he doesn’t seem to know what the hell he’s doing. The staging is terribly clumsy; it doesn’t help that he’s working on a set (designed by Randall Parsons) that’s notably ugly, with utterly perplexing geography. And Harelik’s work with the actors is amateurish. The two women work hard and they have their moments (though Donahoe lacks emotional range), and Weibrecht doesn’t manage too badly. But Foster and Zukerman are both physically awkward, and Zukerman’s focus keeps wavering. Even more than an editor, Harelik needed someone else to take over directing duties. He slashes his own canvas.

Member of Les 7 Doigts de la Main (The 7 Fingers) in Passengers. (Photo: Cimon Parent)

Though the Montreal troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main (The 7 Fingers) has performed for the essential Boston series ArtsEmerson during almost every season in its ten-year history, until their current offering, Passengers, I’d never seen them. That’s not a mistake I’m not likely to make again. The company combines elements of circus and dance, and their acrobatic feats are simply thrilling, whether they are balancing on the high wire, slipping in and out of rings or silks suspended from the flies, or juggling. The best circus acts build on an idea until it turns into a house of cards you can’t believe won’t collapse under its own weight. The 7 Fingers do all that but they’re also dancers – and Shana Carroll, who staged Passengers, is truly a choreographer – so there’s an esthetic element that is often, sometimes bewilderingly, beautiful. A tightrope walker performs downstage right while the lady of the rings counters him upstage left: it’s a pas de deux unlike any I’ve witnessed before. One member of the troupe keeps about a dozen hula hoops gyrating simultaneously, and her undulating body has the grace of a mermaid afloat in the waves. Just before the finale, the smallest (and youngest) member of the company, Louis Joyal, executes a trapeze act with the tallest, Samuel Renaud, that is simultaneously breathtaking and exquisite.

The theme of Passengers is a train journey, but the text (which is conceptual rather than narrative) is unclear, partly because of the writing and partly because you can’t always make it out. At some point I stopped trying to make sense of it because it didn’t seem to matter; you get the idea well enough, and the performance is a treasure trove. The set consists of a cyclorama and a framed screen above the stage (in addition, of course, to the various acrobatic media that fly in for individual pieces), on both of which a series of ghostly images in gradations of black and white, including the faces of the company members, are projected. (Ana Cappelluto, Johnny Ranger and Eric Champoux are the scenographer, the video designer and the lighting designer respectively.) Colin Gagné wrote the original music, but the score also includes some surprising interpolations, like an unexpectedly lovely cover of the Radiohead classic “Creep.” The evening is memorable.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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