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Theater Theologizing

October 4, 2012 By:
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David Barlow, as John, and Blair Baker, as Carol, star in the Bristol Riverside Theater production of David Mamet's play Oleanna.

In the centuries-long history of American theater, there have been numerous examples of popular, critically acclaimed plays and musicals with Jewish themes: Fiddler on the Roof, Broken Glass, Conversations With My Father, Pirates of Penzance, to name a few.

No, you haven't wandered into an easily solved version of "One of these things is not like the other." According to Amy Kaissar, Pirates of Penzance, the Gilbert and Sullivan light opera classic, is much more than just a major element in "Cape Feare," one of the best episodes of The Simpsons.

The plot of the famous operetta centers on a young man who's been indentured to pirates until his 21st birthday. "He turns 21," Kaissar explains, "and believes he should be freed, only to realize that because he was born on a leap year -- Feb. 29 -- he has not actually had 21 birthdays. I found so much there: the importance of language, of semantics -- is it the letter of the law or the intent of the law? To me, that sounds like an intensely Jewish discussion."

And one that she felt was worth having.

Pirates is one of five plays Kaissar has chosen to fill the 2012-2013 season for Bristol Riverside Theater, where she is managing director. The play will be part of its series, "Theater and Theology," a discussion forum led and moderated by two local rabbis, Joshua Gruenberg of Congregation Beth El in Yardley and Elliot Strom of Shir Ami in Newtown.

The forums will be held at the theater after the last Sunday performance of each of this season's plays: Oleanna, What a Glorious Feeling, Death Trap, Pirates of Penzance and Inherit the Wind.

Kaissar says the idea for the series had been germinating for a couple of years, since Bristol produced the Jewish Theatre Festival with Theater Ariel in 2010. "It was pretty clear that there was a demand to offer more, but rather than pick a 'Jewish' play, what we have this season are five plays that you can view through a Jewish lens."

How hard is it to see the Jewish content in a play like Oleanna, which is about a professor/ student relationship that becomes fraught with academic politics, sexual harassment and miscommunication? Beyond the fact that the playwright, David Mamet, is Jewish, there doesn't seem to be much there there.

Not true, says Strom. "There are themes in the play that resonate Jewishly, including the power of language and asymmetrical power which, unfortunately, Jews have known about through long centuries of powerlessness," he explains. "It seemed like a natural to be talking about this" in the setting afforded by Kaissar.

Gruenberg, who like Strom is a longtime lover of theater and was involved in musical theater through his high school years in New York, shares his colleague's viewpoint. "I think we will look to develop those themes. The idea is also to let people give us their viewpoints, how they see them both from a universal and a Jewish perspective."

The beginning of each discussion will feature the rabbis providing their takes on a particular play and its Jewish content. As Strom puts it, "I am trying to do what I do in the synagogue. I take a text and give it a vort, a d'var, a drash -- it has 101 different names. The idea is to give you a reason to care about it, to think about it in a different way and give you some insight from Jewish tradition that will open up a line of thought that you never would have otherwise had."

After the rabbis provide their interpretation of the source material, the floor will be opened up and the moderated discussion then begins. All three principals emphasize that the format for "Theater and Theology" is not set in stone, and that a freewheeling, open forum will encourage more spirited audience participation.

Asked what they expect to happen after the introduction, both the rabbis and Kaissar are at a loss -- none of them has ever heard of a similar program. But it's safe to assume that by beginning the series with a play as polarizing as Oleanna, written by one of the most provocative and linguistically incendiary American playwrights, opinions won't be in short supply.

Gruenberg says he has high hopes for the program. "As the Jewish community grows and the world changes, we need to find new way to engage Jewish people. The classic modes we've always employed may not engage people anymore. For some people, Jewish themes in theater may not only be their entry into the Jewish community, but it may be the way they are engaged with the community, and maybe that can lead to more engagement."

The first "Theater and Theology" forum follows the 3 p.m. performance of Oleanna on Oct. 14. For more information on the plays and the series, go to www.brtstage.org or call 215-785-0100.

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