By Monica McGivern
By Travis Cohen
By Hannah Sentenac
By Daniel Reskin
By Hans Morgenstern
By George Martinez
By Pablo Chacon Alvarez
By Ciara LaVelle
The setting is a small impoverished town in Eastern Europe. The time is the middle of the Seventeenth Century. The heroine is a Jewish woman named Rachel: 28 years old, unattractive, and not prime marriage material. Not that she cares. With self-possession that would be the envy of a modern unmarried woman, Rachel is content to sew, watch over her mute mother, and study the Torah on the sly, the latter activity considered suitable only for men. But after being pressured repeatedly by her aunt, Rachel finally caves in and agrees to marry middle-age Reb Ellis. Only, however, after several prayer sessions, during which she asks for and receives a sign justifying the marriage; and only after confessing to the Almighty that she's really attracted to Reb Ellis's nephew, Asher, a young man who has caught the disease raging throughout the Jewish world at the time A Messiah fever.
Sound like a setup for obsession in the shtetl? Martin Sherman's Messiah, currently on-stage at the Florida Playwrights' Theatre in Hollywood, does have the makings of a tongue-in-cheek satire. Once she is widowed, Rachel runs off with her nephew-by-marriage to exotic Asia Minor, discusses her lust in detail in daily monologues with God, and at long last consummates that lust A all of which is accompanied by amusing patter caricaturing the irrational desire for salvation that a pilgrimage to seek the Messiah entails. But Sherman's intentions go beyond comedy.
Messiah is set in the vortex of a profoundly troubled time in actual Jewish history. The Cossacks, Ukrainian peasants gone mad with brutality, have just ravaged the once thriving Jewish communities in Poland and Russia. The Rabbinic civilization-in-exile is physically and spiritually destitute. When an itinerant mystic and scholar, Sabbatai Sevi, proclaims himself the Messiah in 1665, a wounded, vulnerable people are eager to accept the miraculous news because, in Jewish tradition, the arrival of the Messiah signals an end to all human suffering. Through Rachel's journey with Asher in pursuit of Sevi, Sherman fashions a parable about keeping one's faith in a time of chaos and confusion.
Playwright Sherman is best-known for Bent, the highly praised and widely produced 1977 drama about Nazi persecution of homosexuals. One of the first plays to deal sympathetically and unsensationally with homosexuality, it shares a characteristic with 1981's Messiah: Each play is set in a historically horrific era while making free use of contemporary sensibilities. Bent is informed by a 1970s gay liberation consciousness, Messiah by the ideas of the women's movement. Bent, however, is the more hard-hitting and unsettling of the two plays, effectively merging modern ideas with historical circumstances so that its themes resonate for both time periods. In contrast, Messiah fails to transcend its setting. The unfulfilling result is a period piece that neither explores the psychology behind messianic zeal and the worship of cult leaders, nor delves deeply enough into the play's theme of faith in conflict with doubt.
Paul Thomas's direction falls prey to the script's weaknesses. In his hands, the uneven Messiah fails to be a full-blown comedy, a probing religious exegesis, or a satisfying blend of the two. The humor is sweet and cute, not biting and irreverent. The spiritual inquiry is warm and fuzzy, not scrutinizing and incisive. And the overall pace of the show is languid and marked by long pauses, an odd choice given the fact that the age in which the play is set is noted for the frenzy unleashed by Sevi, the most audacious of the many false messiahs of the time.
Several elements succeed, however. In addition to directing, Thomas has designed the show's lighting, sound, and set, which work in concert to evoke first the austerity and hardship of Eastern Europe and then the heady, hypnotic aura of Asia Minor. Of particular note is the wonderfully spare set: black walls, gray risers, and a handful of props. Yet what carries the evening are three strong performances. Angela Thomas is charming as Rachel, whose confidential chats with the Lord are the central structure around which the other episodes revolve. Her Rachel finds more faith in her awakening sexuality than in the promise of messianic redemption. Rachel is also the voice of reason throughout the play, representing an age-old Jewish skepticism that seems to have gone underground during a storm of religious zeal. As Rachel's mother, Rebecca, Kathleen Emrich maintains the stubborn silence she assumed after witnessing Cossack atrocities. When she finally speaks, her rage and powerlessness in the face of what her family and people have endured at the hands of sadistic marauders is chilling. Here I understood, for the first time all evening, why so many Jews sold their worldly goods and went off in search of salvation. (Unfortunately this revelation occurs three-quarters of the way through the play.) Most memorable is Christina Rumore as Sarah, the alleged Messiah's wife, a woman with a checkered past who sees into Rachel and Rebecca's souls. Rumore glides on- and off-stage, part phantom, part visionary, in a short, luminous performance.
Although this production has some bright moments, for the most part I remained on the outside, never drawn into the center of what should have been crucial and engaging questions, never moved to examine my concepts of God, faith, and tradition. Nor did I come away with a sense of how the zealots of the Seventeenth Century mirror contemporary religious devotees in their commitment to Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist leaders, or, in particular, to the recently deceased Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, considered by hundreds of thousands of modern orthodox Jews to have been the Messiah.