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Jewish Actors Faire Well in Renaissance Revelry
Jews kept a low profile during the Renaissance for fear of persecution – just think of Shylock and his fate in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. But today, some Jews revel in channeling their love of fantasy and history into interactive performances at Renaissance re-enactments.
At least seven Jews will be among the 65 players in the upcoming New Jersey Renaissance Faire, according to artistic director Phil Leipf. The fifth annual event opens at Liberty Lake in Mansfield Township for two weekends beginning May 31.
While these performers may not be overtly Jewish in their characterizations, they’re innately Jewish and proud – even in doublets, tights and hoop skirts.
The experience is, in a way, similar to B’nai Mitzvah – a chance to create a storyline, follow a script, be prepared to improvise — and, of course, eat, drink, dance and be merry.
“Most of your day is improvised. Improvisation is a good acting exercise and sometimes brings moments of extreme hilarity,” said Aileen Goldberg, a 32-year-old actress from Upper Darby.
Goldberg grew up in the trade — her parents run Storybook Musical Theatre, a local children’s production company – and earned a drama degree from New York University.
A longtime fan of Renaissance fairs, she performed five years ago at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire in Manheim, the second-closest festival in the region. (There’s another major fair in Pittsburgh and a smaller one at Kutztown University, but none in Philadelphia.)
Goldberg appears in her third New Jersey festival this year, where she takes on the role of Rosaline from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost and sings in a group called Chaste Treasure.
Last year, she played Queen Margaret, the second wife of King Edward Longshanks – pre-Renaissance figures transported to Elizabethan England through the device of time travel. While researching that character, she discovered that her “husband” was historically noted to be unkind in general, but singled out Jews for expulsion.
“I remember being disturbed about that, feeling odd and out of place,” said Goldberg, who grew up attending Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park. “But if you were Jewish in those times, you didn’t tell anyone.”
Leipf, the artistic director, noted that it would be touchy to deal with religion of any kind as it existed during Elizabethan England.
“The Church of England was brand new, and the Catholics were trying to overthrow it. Jews tended to be nomadic because they were constantly being kicked out of countries. No one was going to hang a Star of David over their shop,” said Leipf, of Evesham, N.J.
Because religion “tends to inflame, not to entertain,” Leipf said, the re-enactors generally avoid addressing it.
“We are not living history,” he said. Rather, “we take history and make it entertaining.”
Still, Leipf added, he would never tell an actor not to put his own stamp on a character. Philadelphian David Gloss has taken that to heart in his role as Alan B. Ware, an apothecary who wants to save the world, one person at a time.
“Tikkun olam is a really big part of my life,” said Gloss, 31, a first-time participant who has been attending Renaissance festivals since before his Bar Mitzvah at Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood. “My apothecary character is on an endless journey to find antidotes and things that can cure disease. It’s all about building a better planet.”
Gloss and his girlfriend, 29-year-old Rachel Brody of Philadelphia, were having Shabbat dinner with friends when someone mentioned they could try out for the fair in January. Even seasoned, repeat performers go through the audition process each year by performing a one-minute monologue, singing and participating in an improvisation session to simulate what to expect during the event.
Brody, another first-timer, jumped at the chance to play a gypsy, her character of choice for Halloween. The Houston native, a one-time theater major, spent time in Israel on an initiative for Teach for America corps members. The trip piqued the educator’s interest in the Middle East, and it was on a return trip to Israel in 2012 that she met Gloss, who runs a marketing and creative services agency.
Gloss and Brody said they are so happy to be in the fair, they don’t mind that it’s a volunteer gig. While they and other supporting cast members participate for the fun of it, they at least get their meals covered. Mid-range cast also get treated to classes in combat and other fair-related acting techniques, while principal cast members such as Goldberg do get paid.
For some Jews, a Renaissance fair really is another coming of age.
This is the third year acting in the New Jersey Renaissance Faire for David Polios, 16, of Eastampton, N.J. The Rancocas Valley Regional High School sophomore, who is about to be confirmed at Reform synagogue Adath Emanu-El in nearby Mount Laurel, became interested in the fair through organizers who also taught fencing and other electives that he took at Liberty Lake summer camp, which is held on the same site.
“I’m a big-time nerd,” said Polios, who first auditioned in 2012, winning the role of Pip, cabin boy to Sir Martin Frobisher.
He portrayed Pip again in 2013 – but with a new mistress, dreaded pirate Moira Float. This year, he is town messenger Fedrick Exeter, known as FedEx for short. At 16, he is now old enough to brandish a sword and has prepared for this year’s fight scenes with classes in stage combat.
Cheryl Polios, 46, joins her son as a supporting player this year now that her weekends are free following the recent Bat Mitzvah of daughter Jennifer. She plays Lady Jane Seymour, older sister of the Duchess of Northumberland. To get into character, she’ll don a luxurious costume commissioned by fair directors, who sometimes purchase fancier duds from opera companies. Other actors, her son included, come up with their own costumes, either by making them or purchasing them from vendors who specialize in period garb.
“David and I both love to read the fantasy genre, and this is kind of like all the books we love to read coming to life,” said Cheryl Polios, who works for the N.J. Judiciary. “It’s almost like going out and playing in the middle of your favorite book.”
Cheryl Polios said being raised Reform made her more accepting of the various philosophies encountered at Renaissance fairs.
“You have witches, Christians, even atheists … all different segments of the Renaissance community,” she noted.
As for Jews?
“The concept is not different than what many Jewish people have had to do for years – be Jewish in the home and something else out on the street,” she said.
The theme of this year’s fair revolves around William Shakespeare as he struggles with writer’s block. His story unfolds in a time warp populated with musicians and singers, jugglers and magicians, fortune tellers and fire-eaters, merchants and artisans. There are fairies and falconry, boating and archery, jousting and human chess, wine-tastings and a menu complete with oversized turkey legs. At every turn, the players mingle with and engage members of the crowd, many of them wearing their own fantasy finery.
“If you don’t want to be interactive with us, don’t dress up,” Cheryl Polios said. “But if you don’t, we may ask why you are wearing funny clothes. If you’re in shorts, you’re practically naked!”
The New Jersey Renaissance Faire will be held rain or shine on May 31 and June 1, 7 and 8 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Liberty Lake off I-295 in Mansfield Township. Tickets cost $20 for adults, discounted rates for children and if purchased online. For more information, visit www.njrenfaire.com, call 888-864-8222 or email email@example.com.