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Michael Nathanson


Jane Enkin

Winnipeg Jewish Theatre has great first Tribe Fest - Nathanson's play Shabbat has entertaining dialogue

by Jane Enkin, posted March 20, 2012

Beyond questions of “what does it mean?” and “is it Jewish?”, Neurotica, the finale of Winnipeg Jewish Theatre's TribeFest 2012, was a lot of fun. A good and satisfying thing for theatre to be. This evening of short plays featured six works by local and American authors, some with Jewish themes, all with elements of Eros, neuroses, or both.

 Artistic Producer Michael Nathanson's play Shabbat, directed by Associate Artistic Producer Suzie Martin, could be viewed by some (not me) as sacrilegious, and certainly anyone would see it as irreverent and “nisht far kinderlekh” -- not for a family audience. It opens with a self-identified secular/superstitious/ambivalent Jew and his self-identified blonde shiksa date (Toby Hughes and Jane Testar, both enjoying themselves enormously). There are enough themes there already for very entertaining dialogue. Nathanson ups the ante considerably when the curious young woman prods the young man into lighting Shabbat candles. This act invokes the powerful presence of the Sabbath Queen, Talia Pura (enjoying herself even more) as a dazzling, frightening, older and therefore much sexier divine presence. Divinity in red hair, black corset and fishnet stockings – makes sense to me, since I've absorbed enough Jewish mysticism and Michael Wex to receive it.

 New Yorker Frederick Stroppel's play The Mamet Women riffs on the rhythm, style, and inventive profanity of a David Mamet play. The committed, straight-faced comic performances by Carolyn Gray and Tricia Cooper, ably directed by Krista Jackson, earned non-stop laughs. The pace is so fast that a pause takes on shocking intensity. Each late sixties costume element got its own applause, and even the props – I loved the mod telephone -- scored points. Stood up by a babysitter at the last minute – I can relate!

 The next play was Lilith, credited to Theatre Incarnate . This work was not as appealing to me.The visual image on stage was disturbing on purpose – a bound gagged man ignored until late into the monologue by Lilith, in a colourful dress, telling familiar variants of her myth to unspecified listeners. Eventually there was a plot, but it didn't add up to enough to be effective.

 Actor Brian Richardson introduced The Book, by Brandon Jewish poet and storyteller Laurie Block, by pointing out that he is not Jewish, and that he and the author had tried various formats for the play before deciding to present it as a sermon. A good choice – Richardson made a commanding impression at the podium, sounding like the Reform rabbis of my youth, wearing a white shawl as if it were a scarf-style pulpit tallis. This sermon actually became more like a traditional Jewish homily, using a text as a jumping off point – in this case, a mild critique of the Bible as literature – and never returning, instead meandering from point to point in a charming flow. For a while, there was a play within a play (featuring too many Ashkenazi cliches and Yiddish accents) that covered in sweet and funny ways the dynamic between God, Abraham, Sarah and a visiting angel. Richardson captured each character deftly with a shift of the white shawl. An effortless slide followed, from first-person comedy to the poet's delicate exploration of Sarah's pain – “When did the laughter end? When your son took his first steps away from you, turning only toward his father?”  Block closed the piece with a personal cascade of images, sharing his affirmations and questions about being a Jew.

Women In Motion was just not interesting enough for me. All the characters on stage in this evening's plays were “real”, in that I believed their emotions and their experiences; in the company of the other shows, this realistic play about two travelling companions from Winnipeg and their upsetting disagreements came off as trivial.

 A truly gripping story can thrive in many incarnations. Shel Silverstein's Hamlet as Told on the Streets was probably already hilarious in print (published in Playboy in 1998); it was raised to new comic heights by One Trunk Collective, in the final show of Tribefest. (Direction by Andrea Sartisen, music by Peter Reinhardt, video by Caroline Wintoniw – all terrific) One of the reasons this Hamlet worked so well is that it didn't exactly parody Shakespeare, it retold a great story in startling visual, audio and emotional language. And, ok, it was really, really funny.

Still images and short film sequences were projected on a huge screen, and at most points the hip-hop, profanity-laced text was shown as well. All the characters were acted in silly masks, by performers in black balaclavas and neutral T-shirts (except for Ophelia and Gertrude in slinky black.) They danced, slouched teenage-style, turned into zombies – the characters were so clear physically that I was surprised at curtain call to see that the whole show was played by only five actors -- Toby Hughes, Gwendolyn Collins, Andrew Cecon, Loc Lu and Erin McGrath. Loc Lu as Hamlet really captured the moody, indecisive, impulsive teenage prince. Most of the text was voiced off-stage, so it was surprising when Polonius spoke live, and even more so when Gertrude broke into gorgeous song.

 Late into the production the tone suddenly became serious and moving with Hamlet's realization of the implications of his murder of Polonius, Ophelia's anger and madness, and the symbolism of the wire coat hanger she gripped as she moved off stage toward her suicide. There was a disturbing and beautiful silent film of her death. Only moments later came the comedy excess of the final death scenes of the play. This is pretty over the top in Shakespeare already – it didn't take much to push it over the edge to slapstick gross-out extravaganza.

Winnipeg Jewish Theatre has had a great first festival. Bring on 2013!

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