Eli of the Mind

Successful dramas tend to deal with similar themes -- lost romance, identity crises, loneliness, family tensions -- partly because some subjects lend themselves more easily to the stage than others. Extraterrestrials (and other types of space matter), pornographic activity, gang warfare, and the like are difficult to translate into live action either because of the special effects needed or the complexity of the material itself. Similarly, there are subjects generally thought almost taboo because of the brutality involved or the general depressive tone the show might take. Count among these rape (although Extremities almost succeeds), child pornography, and long-term terminal illness (although again, shows such as As Is and Falsettoland blend in some humor to break up the pathos of the subject).

Among examples of topics so delicate and uncomfortable writers must tread carefully when developing them for the theater, none rivals the Holocaust. The vicious genocide of millions is by nature relentlessly horrific, leaving scant room for jokes, jibes, wit, romance or any type of lighter scene to break up the pressure. Sitting in a theater seeing a play about this evil event easily becomes akin to finding entertainment in a dentist's chair. Yet again and again, playwrights attempt to dramatize the Nazi atrocities, perhaps out of a need to find some outlet, some cathartic means of speaking out the unspeakable. The dull and dreary offering Yours, Anne even tries to make music of the mass murders, and no matter how many times that show is rewritten and re-staged, it never pulls itself out of the bog dictated by the material.

The new Florida Playwright's Theatre, dedicated to presenting original and/or challenging works in the area, therefore must be commended for bringing a dark piece about the Holocaust -- Eli: A Mystery Play of the Sufferings of Israel -- to its inviting black box space and giving it a sound, cerebral production. However, as good as the cast and direction gets, not to mention the finely wrought poetic script by Nobel Prize-winner in literature Nelly Sachs, the show ultimately suffers from the same old problem: the more you let yourself become involved with it, the more you feel as though you're slipping into a black hole of despair.

Adding to the challenge is the fact that the work, written in the Sixties and first produced in America at the Guthrie Theater in 1981, unfolds through rather elaborate free verse rather than "normal" dialogue, requiring careful attention on the part of the audience. And it's a mystery play A not a whodunit but a type of theater developed in medieval times to attend such themes as man's relationship to God, evil, and nature. In other words, don't even consider this particular show unless you come prepared for bleak and intellectual fare.

The play focuses on a group of survivors in a small town virtually wiped out by the Nazis. In the first act, they attempt to make sense of what happened to them, try to overcome their pain over lost relatives and friends, and most of all, question God's judgment in allowing such horrors to occur. As the play proceeds, one of them, a shoemaker named Michael, becomes the chosen avenger for the murder of Eli, a child who blew his pipe to the heavens asking for help just as he was slain. God, as a presence within the tormented, instructs Michael to track down Eli's killer and exact some form of revenge.

With no props or scenery, the cast of eight manages to evoke a real atmosphere and connection between the multitude of characters they portray, all the while speaking the verse naturally, just as skilled Shakespearean thespians do with the Bard. While each of them deserves praise, especially fine are Karlene Tomlinson and Alan Winet, who imbue various roles with dignity and sensitivity. Duncan Pflaster sometimes waxes too wooden as Michael but he also doesn't overplay and oversentimentalize the part either.

Director Paul Thomas uses the modest space creatively and effectively and extracts real life from what could be very dead scenes. Still, the ritual of sifting through bones and bloodied shoes with endless lamentations from the characters becomes almost unbearable. Perhaps that's the point, but it's also questionable as effective theater material.

Take just one line: "He who goes gathering death moments needs not a basket but a heart to fill." Imagine two hours of such thoughts A brilliant, brutal, and yes, a bit boring. Eli certainly isn't for everyone, but for those who can appreciate and fully understand it, the elegy will contain some memorable and stinging moments amidst the mainly grim proceedings.

Stage Notes
Each year, the South Florida Critics Association gives $2000 in awards to the best theater, dance, music, variety, and journalism students in the area. To qualify, you must be graduating in 1993 from a Dade, Broward, or Palm Beach county high school and must be going to college in 1993 with a major in one of the above-mentioned subjects. To apply, send a letter briefly stating your background and goals, along with your area of interest. Include age, home address, and school you are currently attending, and mail by May 1 to Al Price, SFCA, S-883 Flanders Drive, Delray Beach, FL, 33484. For more information, students should call Mr. Price at 407-499-3701.

Along similar lines of furthering arts education, a group called OneArt, "dedicated to the cultural enrichment of handicapped and underprivileged children since 1979" and located in the Miami Design District at 180 NE 39th Street, is offering free drama, dance, and arts classes for students ages eight through fifteen with its "Kids Off Streets" program. Participants will be encouraged to audition for a performing company under the direction of Jose Martin, artistic director of OneArt and former dancer with the Joffrey Ballet of New York. For more information, call Alexander Prado at 576-7447.

Finally, local playwright Janice Lapore needs not more education but well-deserved encouragement for her increasingly successful efforts to make a South Florida voice heard on the national stage. Janice's Delores Rain, which premiered at ACME three years ago, is now being developed for production at The Organic Theater in Chicago. Another work is under consideration at the Arena Stage in Washington, while a short piece is being similarly perused by the famed Humana Festival in Louisville. Meanwhile, her newest, A Curse of Angels, can be seen this summer at ACME's original play festival. As I've said before, the secret to making a real impact on the theater world at large lies in developing original plays. Let's hope there are more like Janice out there, more local theaters willing to take the risk of birthing new work, and more audience members willing to be challenged and surprised.

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