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Theaters Do Jewish

October 26, 2011 By:
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Exodus, stage right: James Ijames (left) as John joins Cody Nickell (center) as Caleb, and Johnnie Hobbs, Jr. as Simon in "The Whipping Man."

Is there something in the water of the local theatrical community?

Maybe a little seltzer?
 
How else to explain what seems an unsatiated thirst for Jewish plays in Philadelphia this season?
 
The EgoPo Classic Theater, the Arden, the Wilma, the Lantern theaters -- all these companies are wholly committed this year to presenting plays with decidedly Jewish themes and angles and, in the case of EgoPo, an entire season.
 
Outside the city, the Bristol Riverside Theater is getting into the act next month with its presentation of My Mother's Italian, My Father's Jewish and I'm in Therapy.
 
"I don't recall, in the more than 20 years I've been here in the city, seeing so many Jewish plays in a single season," says Deborah Baer Mozes, founder of Theatre Ariel, the lone Philadelphia company dedicated solely to plays of Jewish interest.
 
"I think there is a trend to do Jewish theater now," agrees Lane Savadove, artistic director of the EgoPo, kicking off its "Festival of Jewish Theater" this month.
 
Maybe it's not the water, but the water cooler and the talk around it: "We've been in place for two years" with this season schedule, says Savadove, with Wendy Kesselman's adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank, at the Prince Music Theater.
 
And area theater executives and directors do talk to each other, adds Savadove. "Who knows," he chuckles, "maybe we inspired the others."
 
Certainly, the Arden and the Wilma have made inspired choices of their own for their Jewish "entries": the Wilma is now presenting -- along with a series of seminars beyond the stage -- the United States premiere of Our Class, with its focus on the tentacles of the Holocaust reaching out decades beyond the 1941 slaughter of Jews in Jedwabne, Poland.
 
In The Whipping Man , beginning previews on Oct. 27, with the opening set for Nov. 2 at the Arcadia Stage, the Arden continues its proclivity for producing Broadway and, in this case, off-Broadway plays that snap the audience to attention.
 
The Whipping Man does so with its unusual triptych of mixing the rites of Passover with the post-Civil War treatment of slaves suddenly guaranteed rights as free men, who, in this case, have adopted their former masters' Jewish faith.
 
 
Leigh Goldenberg (left) and Kathy Goldenberg serve as seder hosts for "The Whipping Man" cast, including Johnnie Hobbs, Jr.
At the Lantern, the title is a mouthful, appropriate for a play that is a jaw-dropper: New Jerusalem, the Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656.
 
The Lantern, too, has scheduled a series of seminars and discussions, theirs revolving around the 17th-century Jewish philosopher who found no rhyme or reason in the tenets of Judaism.
 
At the EgoPo Classic Theater, to every season there is a theme, says Savadove, who was inspired by his Russian emigre grandfather who came to Philadelphia in 1890, established himself as a leading surgeon at what is now the Einstein Medical Center but never abandoned memories of the shtetl's Yiddish stage.
 
"He is the reason why I am in theater" and a major reason why the EgoPo director decided "to look back into the history of Yiddish and Jewish theater" to see what he could cull for this theme season.
 
Fiddler on the Roof was not an option, given the director was looking for less-frequently produced shows.
 
EgoPo does have the evergreen Anne Frank, although a more modernistic approach in the Kesselman adaptation, staged locally before. There is also Peter Weiss' The Investigation , which consists of staged readings of transcripts from the Frankfurt Auschwitz court sessions of the 1960s; and springtime productions of The Golem and A Dybbuk , Tony Kushner's adaptation of the classic S. Ansky play.
 
Maybe it's not the seltzer but the sense that it's all good art -- and good business. After all, the 2009 "Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia" spat out statistics that have to fall pleasantly on a producer's ear: The city has the seventh largest Jewish population in the nation.
 
And where there are Jews, there is theater. But why now?
 
In theater as in life, timing is -- everything: "There are obviously a lot of things on people's minds these days," says Mozes, who has committed the past two decades to touring and staging Jewish plays and productions throughout the region and is inspired by the focus on Jewish themes in area theaters this season.
 
She sees Jews caught in the cross-currents of communal and Israeli conflicts that make plays penned with Jewish perspectives more appreciated.
 
 
Sara Howard, star of "The Diary of Anne Frank," is joined by Griffin Stanton-Ameisen (center) and Ross Beschler, stars of EgoPo's next Jewish festival production, "The Golem."
One need sit back and take in the insights, she contends. "There is a renewed interest on the topics of freedom and survival, and the notion of who we are as a people is very much on people's minds."
 
Indeed, adds Elise Bernhardt, president and CEO, Foundation for Jewish Culture: "There has indeed been a marked increase not only of Jewish themes in secular theater, but in secular attention to Jewish theater.
 
"People are showing interest in the Jewish role in secular American culture," she says, noting a national trend.
 
It's not one's imagination but fact: In New York, "plays like Imagining Heschel and Imagining Madoff especially stand out: they present fictionalized versions of public Jewish figures who were at the center of major events in American history" -- the former with its focus on theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel; the latter, about Bernie Madoff, who made off with other people's money -- "and they received significant mainstream attention."
 
Is it ironic that some of the playwrights ironing out these problems on page and stage are not Jewish? Mozes refers to Lopez of The Whipping Man , who's taken a cat o'nine tails to the topic of freedom and the frisson one experiences in gaining it, comparing the Jews' exodus from Egypt to blacks' exit from slavery after the Civil War.
 
The writer himself claims he took on the topic because "I'm an American history geek," whose research led to revelations about Jews owning black slaves in the days leading up to the Civil War.
 
"It's a good thing" when a non-Jew takes on such topics, offering "an outsider's perspective, a different lens," says Mozes.
 
Outsiders looking in is in keeping with Jewish life, says Mozes: "The plays of this season fulfill the premise of Jews both as outsiders and challengers" to the status quo, and over the years, Ariel has committed itself to that theatrical duality.
 
Not everyone involved in this year's local "Jewish season" sees it that way: Matt Pfeiffer, raised Catholic, envisions theater as one of catholic images and insights. His being non-Jewish offers no revelation that a Jewish director would be shut out of, contends the director of the Arden's Whipping Man.
 
And what about that liquid imbibed by theater executives? Maybe it's not seltzer; maybe it's Guinness. "Last year, I directed The Lieutenant of Inishmore, " Pfeiffer says of playwright Martin McDonagh's macabre and gory comedy of Irish origin.
 
"And I remember it seemed to be one of 10 Irish plays being done, and people were asking, Why so many at the same time?"
 
Answer: There is no answer. "Sometimes it's just the zeitgeist, just kismet."
 
And sometimes it's just a kiss-off: David Bar Katz, an award-winning playwright with roots in Philly, thinks sometimes anti-Semitism in theater shows its ugly head -- attached to the body of Jewish artistic directors. "I have found that Jews that are working at major non-Jewish theaters are less inclined to do Jewish material than non-Jewish artistic directors," he says.
 
There is a history to this: His play The History of Invulnerability used Auschwitz as a focal point and "only Jewish producers have had discomfort with the Holocaust aspect of the play," notes Katz, told by a major producer "he would do it, only if I took 'the Holocaust stuff' out."
 
Director Pfeiffer took no chance of feeling left out of the Jewish rites and rituals revealed onstage at the Arden. "Theater is spiritual, and what especially attracted me to this play was the seder scene -- one of very few plays that actually depicts a real religious ceremony," he says.
 
In an age of disconnect -- where families may meet through Skype seders and schedule cyberspace services -- the essence of the seder struck home; he attended a mock ceremony with cast members -- hosted by Leigh Goldenberg, the Arden marketing and public relations manager.
 
Mozes herself is doing a Moses -- leading her company back to the promised land of the stage after years of touring. "We've done a lot of biblical midrash" productions, she says, and will be taking inspiration from Talmudic text in the company's return to a local theater as home base.
 
With all the serious work being done on area stages, one troupe has left room for some kibitz and bits: The Gas and Electric Arts Company hopes to spark the Chanukah season with a children's treat.
 
Will its Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins this December be the landsmen's stage equivalent of The Nightmare Before Christmas?
 
Jewish theater going mainstage and mainstream: Tim Burton, hang on to your Johnny Depp; the Jews may claim him for their own yet.
 

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