Friday, June 26, 2009

Pangs of the Messiah

Sadness and frustration greet final curtain at JCC’s ‘PANGS OF THE MESSIAH’

As the stage went dark at the Brooks Theatre following JCC’s production of ‘PANGS OF THE MESSIAH,’ I was struck with a feeling of sadness. Having been an active member of the Jewish Community Center’s theatre program, both acting and directing plays on the stage of the Halle Theatre, and it’s predecessor, the storefront on Lee Road, I was struck with the realization that the days of “Jewish” theatre in Cleveland was probably coming to an end.

When the Mandell JCC was built without a theatre, and the Mayfield JCC was destroyed by the wrecking ball, and the staff members of the theatre program were let go, the end was in sight. Now, unless there is an unexpected about face, the end is here. How sad that the voice of Jewish oriented plays has been snuffed out.

My other feeling after PANGS ended was frustration. Watching a play about a peace potential in Israel, and the prospective consequences of following the paths available, and realizing that all of the hopes and dreams of those who desire a true peaceful homeland for the Jewish people, may potentially be leading to another holocaust, is not a pleasant thought. On the way to our car, my wife and I talked about the play and what may well be a hopeless situation. As we drove home, we fell into a pall of silence as we were consumed by what appears to be a problem with no ideal solution or maybe not even a hopeful solution.

‘PANGS OF THE MESSIAH,’ a play by Israeli playwright, Motti Lerner, was originally written in 1986 and performed in Tel Aviv. Its English translation premiered at Theatre J in Washington, in 2007. It had a staged reading in Cleveland.

Set in 2012 amidst the signing of a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians, the script is an apocalyptic yet human drama which centers on a group of religious West Bank Jewish settlers pitted against an Israeli leadership they feel betrayed by. The family not only finds itself torn between fighting to stay in their settlement, but obeying their government’s decision to dismantle it. In addition, they are caught between realism versus philosophy.
Lerner doesn’t attempt to provide answers to the unanswerable. This may frustrate some, but it is reality. He avoids the temptation to demonize, leaving us with frustration and a sorrowful meditation on how it might all end. “Questions are over,” Shmuel (the rabbinical leader of the community) says early on. “Maybe there’ll be some answers.” Yes, maybe, but we come to the conclusion that the answers may not be the ones that those who are interested in the welfare of the Jews of Israel, and the state itself as a homeland for the Jewish people, want. The play is not for those wanting escapist theater. This is reality. It is scary and provocative.

The JCC production, under the direction of Scott Plate, is generally well done. It is apparent that the time the production team spent with the playwright, rabbis and Jewish consultants, has helped in using the correct rituals and understanding the plight of those living on the West Bank. What makes this most impressive is that many members of the cast are not Jewish.

Laura Carlson Tarantowski’s scenic design and Amber Michalak’s painting of the background sets a correct mood. Stan Kozak’s sound effects, especially the sound of the barking dog and the Kol Nidrah chanting at the conclusion, enhances the effect.

One might ask why several characters use accents since it seems apparent that everyone is speaking in Hebrew, though we hear them in English. This stage effect becomes even more frustrating as the accents come and go.

Strong performances are put in by Charles Kartali as Shmuel, Jean Zarzour as his wife, Karon Sabo as his daughter-in-law, Amy Pawlukiewicz as his daughter, and Ryan Jagru, as Shmuel’s conflicted son-in-law. Ethan Rosenfeld is outstanding as Nadav the autistic son whose simplistic obsessive mannerisms mirror the narrowness of the situation, yet mirror the breath and frustration of the conflict. On the other hand, Neal Poole is a overly whinny as Benny’s father and Mark Mayo’s characterization of Avner (Shumuel’s oldest son) comes and goes.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: And, so, it appears we say goodbye to the Jewish Community Center’s long running theatre program. At least it will be remembered for closing with a thought-provoking well conceivedproduction.

(Thanks to Roe Green for her continued generous support for the JCC arts program.)