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.
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A note about Florida Playwrights' Theater (FPT). While the company's current production may have missed the mark, at least it risked presenting little-known material. So far its season has included plays by John Guare and Shakespeare, with future offerings by David Mamet and Sam Shepard, as well as the intriguing production A Woman Called Truth. Scheduled to run from January 28 through February 26, during Black History Month, the latter play is a biography of freed slave and abolitionist Sojourner Truth. FPT's diverse lineup, reputation for excellent interpretations of Shakespeare, and willingness to present new or not-often-produced work make it a company worth following.
Sadly for South Florida theatergoers, Anna Deavere Smith has accepted a movie role and therefore has canceled her performances of Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities, her innovative and daring look at race relations in New York City. Word has it that she will reschedule. In its place, Miami Light Project will host Eric Bogosian's Pounding Nails in the Floor With My Forehead. Catch his fast-talking, mind-rattling, and barbed blend of standup comedy, monologue, and characterizations at the same time, same place: January 20-21, Maurice Gusman Concert Hall on the University of Miami campus. Call 865-8477 for tickets and details. If you're holding tickets to Deavere Smith, they will be honored at the door.
Want to get the lowdown on South Florida theater from the point of view of New York City's only weekly theater glossy? The January 16 issue of Theater Week examines Florida theater. That means the entire state but our part of the pie is sure to get a major slice of the coverage. Theater Week is on sale at Joe's News, 1559 Sunset Dr., South Miami, and Barnes and Noble in Loehman's Plaza on Biscayne Boulevard, Aventura.