There are no happy endings in classic Russian literature, just as there are no happy endings in current-day Gaza, the tightly packed sliver of land on the Mediterranean Sea where 2 million Palestinians vie for normalcy. The reality of life there is much harsher in Mosaic Theater Company’s Washington. premiere of “Ulysses on Bottles,” a compact play that offers the smallest of glimpses into life that is hardly bearable on the Palestinian side of the border, and a life of nearly ignorant bliss on the Israeli side.
The first entry into the 16th year of Mosaic’s Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival, “Ulysses” runs through June 11 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Ulysses, an unofficial moniker for an unnamed Palestinian, finds himself in an Israeli jail after an outlandish attempt to build a raft of plastic water bottles and set sail to Gaza where he intended to deliver boxes of Russian literature — Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Bulgakov.
Israeli playwright Gilad Evron penned the work after one of his sons refused to serve in the army and was jailed. When Evron tried to bring his son books — Russian literary classics — the prison prohibited it. In 2012, the piece received the Israel Theater Prize for best original play; its American debut came three years later.
Director Serge Seiden, Mosaic’s managing director/producer, homes in on individuals in this character-driven play, eschewing clutter on Frida Shoham’s spare stage, colorless and adorned with just a few chairs, a pair of desks and translucent barriers. There the discomfitting story unfolds in 80 minutes, getting to some ugly truths about ideology, privilege and persecution that have infiltrated Israeli society as the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank has become the status quo.
Izakov, Ulysses’ Jewish lawyer, proposes the simplest solution to get his client out of jail: agree to never enter Gaza again. An insanity plea is another option. The failed literature teacher, though, refuses both, declaring himself both sane and unrepentant. What could possibly be a problem with shipping in Russian novels, short stories and poems to the populace of Gaza? The answer comes from Israeli government functionary Seinfeld: “So they don’t get the idea that life could be better.”
Seinfeld, a sinister Sarah Marshall, spouts statistics and projections to Izakov about the future of this closed enclave abutting Israel. The doomsday predictions are clear for Gaza, but for Seinfeld — and Izakov — it’s merely maps and charts, Lego pieces and graphs to represent the looming population explosion and attendant epidemics, famines, illiteracy.
An outlandish subplot involves Izakov’s wife, Eden, and her bizarre request that her overworked husband sing wearing a pink tutu at a children’s charitable benefit. Her narcissistic behavior along with junior partner Horesh’s shady dealings, suggest that Israelis live their lives with little to no thought about the hard problems Gazans face.
Izakov (Matthew Boston) is a practical man who knows and respects the law to a fault, but Boston allows him to grow as the relationship between client and lawyer deepens. First it’s a candy bar, then a promise that he’ll lobby for better conditions, as Izakov becomes more attached to his at-times frustrating client.
Michael Kevin Darnall’s Ulysses is the poet at the center of the piece and each time he waxes eloquent, quoting or paraphrasing passages from his beloved Russian authors, the harsh prison lights dim and background music rises, while his posture and voice change. Literature and its remembrance becomes his savior in the stark prison. It’s as if Ulysses is channeling his namesake, the original journeyman and seafarer, better known as Odysseus. He serves as the moral stakeholder in a piece where the crime of promoting literature has become a life sentence. That Ulysses is willing to live and sacrifice his freedom for his convictions so frustrates his lawyer that Izakov scoffs, “Who even reads anymore? The theaters are empty. There are no protest movements … stop being a parody.”
Izakov’s truth is that of a cynic. Horesh’s and Eden’s truths are personal gain. Ulysses’ truth is that of a poet, one whose hopes and dreams are to open hearts and minds of an oppressed people. Books apparently are seen as the enemy by Seinfeld, who represents Israeli society, a shocking conclusion for a state founded by the people of the book, who hold literature and discourse in such high regard.
“Ulysses on Bottles” is a daring and hard-edged allegory written for a nation where both nothing and everything are black and white, good and evil, friend and foe. It unmasks some difficult and uncomfortable truths about the Israeli occupation in Gaza. And Evron provides no answers, just a case study in how to not just look at, but see the other. And that makes this a must for those interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, no matter where one stands on the political spectrum.
In fact, it’s the Israeli characters who come off as unforgiving, intolerant, hateful — which will, undoubtedly make audiences uncomfortable. Evron died earlier this year at 61 — but his play poses tough questions of his Israeli compatriots. There is no justice for the literature-loving poet Ulysses and, sadly, no peace for either side in this ongoing conflict.
“Ulysses on Bottles,” by Gilad Evron, through June 11, Mosaic Theater Company at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE, Washington; tickets $40-$60; call 202-399-7993, ext. 2, or visit mosaictheater.org.
Billy Crystal is back on the road. The six-time Emmy Award-winning comedian, actor, producer, director and writer — most recently of a book of essays, “Still Foolin’ ‘Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys” — is touring the country with his new show, “Spend the Night with Billy Crystal.” In the Washington area, he’ll stop at the Theater at MGM National Harbor on April 29 and 30.
The show promises to feel like an intimate chat with the audience — a blend of standup with a “sit-down” interview with Crystal, moderated at many shows by comedian and actor Bonnie Hunt. Crystal, who lives in Los Angeles, will tell stories, talk about the world as he sees it, reflect on his life and show some film clips from his long career.
Of course, the popular nine-time Oscar host has numerous iconic films and roles to choose from: The title character in the quintessential rom-com “When Harry Met Sally;” the grouchy “miracle worker” in “The Princess Bride;” Mitch, a New Yorker heading toward a midlife crisis who goes on a cattle drive with his buddies in “City Slickers;” and in “Analyze This,” a shrink to Robert De Niro’s mob boss.
But before he was charming millions, Crystal, 68, was entertaining his family and friends while growing up in the quaint beach town of Long Beach, N.Y. Crystal’s early childhood, in the 1950s, was filled with music and laughter. His mother, Helen, was a talented tap dancer and singer. His father, Jack, worked six days a week at two jobs — as a jazz promoter and manager of the family’s popular New York City record store.
Crystal and his dad would spend most Sundays together watching baseball games. Their relationship was chronicled in Crystal’s Tony Award-winning one-man show “700 Sundays” (also adapted into a book and HBO special), named for the number of Sundays he spent with his father, who died of a heart attack when Crystal was 15.
You seem to be a celebrity who wears your Judaism as a badge of honor.
I do. I mean, I still make fun, but it’s not about Jews — it’s about my Jews, it’s about my relatives. It’s not generalizations.
What are some of your favorite parts about being Jewish?
You mean, besides the circumcision?
You remember that, huh?
Yeah, oh yeah, that’s why I’m an insomniac. I’m waiting for that guy to come back in the room.
What else do you love about being Jewish?
The storytelling, the warmth, the sense of humor. My dad was strict about the holidays. We honored them, we went to temple. I like the ritual, and the caring for our planet that’s written into so many of the works I read in Hebrew school.
How do you compare when you were just starting out in showbiz 40-plus years ago to touring with your new show today?
It all feels the same. I don’t think I’ve stopped working since the eighth grade. Backstage, when I was on Broadway, felt the same as it did backstage when I was getting ready to do a school play in high school. It’s that same energy of confidence, a little bit of nerves … The moment you go out, you release and say, “OK, I’m ready, here I come.” It’s kind of an intoxicating feeling to go out and entertain people.
That’s why, after all these years, I’m going back on the road with this show … At this age and this point in my career, to still have the hunger I did as a young man is a great feeling.
Besides signing to a one-day contract with the New York Yankees, what’s another of your proudest professional achievements?
I was the first American comedian to perform in the Soviet Union back in 1989 in an HBO special called “Midnight Train to Moscow.” It was a Russian-speaking audience [with] some Americans. Gorbachev was in power, the [Berlin] Wall had not come down yet, and [I felt honored] that HBO trusted me. I found all these relatives that I didn’t know I had there [in Russia]. But performing there and being an ambassador, if you will, for American humor in that country is something I look back on with great pride.
What did your father teach you during those “700 Sundays,” before he passed away?
Besides teaching me a love for comedy, a love for reading, a love for baseball, he also taught me about doing the right thing. My dad was a civil rights giant in his own quiet way, in that he was one of the first promoters to integrate jazz bands. So the house, yes, was filled with Jewish relatives with stories, but sitting next to them was Zutty Singleton, who was a great jazz drummer, or Tyree Glenn, who was Louie Armstrong’s trombone player, or any of these other great musicians. They were all just friends. My family label — Commodore Records — produced “Strange Fruit,” which is Billie Holliday’s epic song about lynching. It took a Jewish family to produce that record, to write that song.
How did your father’s premature death shape your life and your relationship with your mother?
I was 15 and was dealt a bad hand. You can’t help but be angry, and I was angry and had to learn to live with that, and to deal with my mother, who was suddenly widowed and forced back into the workforce. [Being] back home alone with her, while my brothers were away at college, made me grow up really fast. I admired her strength — at the age of 50 she was suddenly back in the workforce. Three sons in school and we all graduated college because of her. You watch that and learn what parenting is really about, and what being a son is really about. My mom sent me on a path of trying to do the right thing in my life and also valuing every moment that you live.
Billy Crystal will perform at the Theater at MGM National Harbor on April 29 and 30. Tickets are $54-$506, on sale at ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000.
Cindy Sher is the executive editor of Chicago’s JUF News.
—JTA News and Features
The old South and the new collide in the haunting and disconcertingly timely musical “Parade,” in a taut and spare production by Washington’s Keegan Theatre.
The work, an early musical by Broadway wunderkind composer Jason Robert Brown, retells the gut- wrenching tale of Leo Frank, the only Jew lynched in America. The ignominious event occurred in 1915 and fed on an unfortunate love of sordid news, yellow journalism and hatred of Jews that feels pulled from today’s Twitter feed.
Running at the newly renovated Church Street Theatre near Dupont Circle through April 15, “Parade” unfurls in the shadow of the Civil War, when Confederate flags still flew, wounded Confederate soldiers still walked, and memories of battles were still salient.
Directors Christina A. Coakley and Susan Marie Rhea have taken a large, sometimes overly done show and stripped it down to its essentials: a story forthrightly told by book writer Alfred Uhry, whom theater lovers and moviegoers may be familiar with for his play “Driving Miss Daisy,” another Southern epic drawn from the writer’s experience (Uhry’s uncle owned the pencil factory where Frank worked); and Brown’s lush and emotionally driven score with its nod to Southern musical influences, from roots country music, to blues and gospel.
On the bare stage with the building’s exposed brick visible, set designer Matthew Keenan places an abstracted tree fashioned from 2 x 4s at the center, an ominous reminder of what’s to come, but also a subtle suggestion of the rootedness of the folk that populate this town in the old red hills of Georgia.
Frank, a New York transplant who married into the family business, oversees a pencil factory where most of the workers are teenage girls — transplants from rural farming communities. His wife, Lucille, is a Jewish Southern belle, which both mystifies and occasionally rankles him. The play opens on Confederate Memorial Day, 1913, a holiday observed by the townsfolk with remembrances of their lost war heroes.
We meet pretty Mary Phagan (Cassie Cope) and Frankie Epps (Ricky Drummond), who’s sweet on her. Their innocent duet belies what’s to come. She stops in the factory to collect her paycheck and that becomes the last time she is seen alive. Frank, confronted at home by police, quickly becomes a suspect. Whether it’s his acerbic manner or his outsider status that condemns him, he is soon jailed and on trial for the rape and murder of a 13-year-old white girl.
As Frank, Michael Innocenti has the unenviable task of humanizing this less-than-perfect character: he’s impatient, driven and brusque, simply a fish out of water who exhibits few of the niceties expected in the slower paced Southern milieu where politesse hides ugly undertones.
Wife Lucille, played by Eleanor Todd, has taken to ameliorating her husband’s abrasive side. And though he expects to be found innocent, Leo ends up jailed, facing the death penalty for rape and murder. Everyone in town has turned against him.
Leo and Lucille’s relationship is revealed through Brown’s score: the counterpoint duet “Leo at Work/What Am I Waiting for?” contrasts the couple’s personalities and Lucille’s attendant waiting for her husband to return home to her, while her husband expresses discontent with his life in this Southern limbo.
Among a terrific ensemble, the standouts musically include Patrick M. Doneghy as night watchman and escaped convict Newt Lee, who sings a bone-chilling blues number on a chain gang. Harrison Smith as Britt Craig, the over-imbibing reporter, makes this production even more prescient with our current appetite for fake news as he grabs onto the most sordid aspects of this event. Innocenti, as Leo, sings about his outsider identity, “How Can I Call this Home?” and Todd, as Lucille, who shows her strength and determination with “Do It Alone,” soars with her strong and emotive soprano voice.
Interestingly, one of the threads that becomes more evident in this smaller version of “Parade,” is the point of view and relationships of working-class blacks. Uhry and Brown make it a point to demonstrate that blacks remain suspect and second- class servants in this white-dominated society.
“Parade,” which received Tony Awards for Uhry’s book and Brown’s score when it premiered on Broadway in 1998, is frighteningly relevant today with the rise of open anti-Semitism throughout America.
At a moment when bomb threats at Jewish community centers have become commonplace and anti-immigrant, -black and -Muslim statements are put forth by our government leaders, “Parade” is chillingly instructive of what can result from hatred. It is a must-see, alas, for those who most likely will ignore this artistic rendering of our nation’s bitter history of prejudice.
“Parade,” Thursdays through Sundays, through April 15, Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW, Washington; tickets $45-$55; visit keegantheatre.com.
What’s a nice Episcopalian guy from Kansas City doing in the world of Yiddish theater?
Shane Baker says he’s having the time of his life.
Baker, who dabbled in magic, rode the elephant at the circus’s annual stop in town and has fond recollections of covered dish events in church basements as a child, is now a Yiddishist, fluent in the language and culture of generations of Eastern European Jews.
He’s a member of the New Yiddish Rep, one of two professional Yiddish theater companies in New York.
On Sunday, Baker comes to the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville with “Tevye & Friends,” based not on the beloved 1964 Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” but on the original Sholem Aleichem stories, which were a paean to a disappearing culture even when he penned them in 19th-century Ukraine.
“’Fiddler’ is a great show,” Baker said last week from New York where he is executive director of the Congress for Jewish Culture. “We say that the best virtue of ‘Fiddler’ is that it’s universally known and loved.” So the Tevye character, so memorable from the musical, is the link that Baker says gets people in the door to hear something in Yiddish.
“Tevye & Friends” features Baker and acclaimed actor Allen Lewis Rickman — known for the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man” and Woody Allen’s “Fading Gigolo,” along with a recurring role on “Boardwalk Empire” — and Ukrainian-born Yelena Shmulenson (“A Serious Man,” “Boardwalk Empire” and “Orange Is the New Black”).
Tevye is the entrée into this vibrant Jewish world, says Baker, but he wants audiences to discover more of Sholem Aleichem — who has been called “the Jewish Mark Twain” — and the fun and poignant stories he wrote. “There’s Menachem Mendl, a quintessential shlimazel …. and Sholem Aleichem’s very first piece of writing, ‘A Stepmother’s Curses,’ we translate it ‘A Stepmother’s Trash Talk.’ She was an impatient and unpleasant woman who apparently had a gift for invective that inspired him to write it all down. He put together a dictionary or lexicon at about age 7 or 8.”
Baker’s earliest memories of hearing Yiddish were at the movies, where the Marx Brothers’ “Animal Crackers” was playing. “Groucho sings ‘Hurray for Capt. Spalding, the African explorer/Did someone call me schnorrer?’ Everybody laughed and 5-year-old Shane doesn’t know why people are laughing so I turned and asked, ‘Daddy, what’s a schnorrer?’ Being a good gentile from the Midwest, he gave the only answer he could: ‘It’s made up. It doesn’t mean anything.’”
As it turned out for Baker, as his interest in theater grew, he began to discover “that there’s a whole collection, a whole language of these words and it wasn’t made up. I realized that Yiddish is a very rich language. I started to see that, even in serious theater on the straight stage, Yiddish played a role. There was Stella Adler, a great teacher of Stanislavsky’s acting method, who was a bigger success on the Yiddish stage than on the English-speaking stage as an actress.”
An autodidact, he began teaching himself the language with college-level textbooks and after college moved to New York and continued his studies at YIVO’s advanced language program. He also began spending time with some older Yiddish actresses, often visiting them at home where they fed him herring, chicken soup, tzimmes and told stories in the mamaloshen — the mother tongue, as Yiddish is called. “That,” he said, “was my real education.”
Eventually, Baker, 48, earned a masters degree in Yiddish at the University of Texas-Austin. “But I wasn’t interested in academia. My interest is in the living, breathing culture,” he said. “And, for a culture that is supposedly passed its heyday, there’s a lot going on. We’ve now got two active Yiddish theaters in New York. The other is the Folksbiene.”
He adds, “I was really lucky to get involved in Yiddish theater when I did. I don’t think I could have had anything like the experience, the training, the connection to the secular Yiddish history, had I not come along in the late ‘90s, because virtually everyone from that European-born generation is gone, whether they came over before the war or after. It provided an invaluable link to the theatrical tradition for me.”
And Baker continues to thrive as an Episcopalian in the world of Yiddish. He notices a rising interest in Yiddish theater and culture: For New Yiddish Theater, he translated and starred in a Yiddish version of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” and he also performs his one-man show in English and Yiddish, “The Big Bupkis: A Complete Gentile’s Guide to Yiddish Vaudeville” to large audiences. Last year the New Yiddish Theater received two Drama Desk award nominations, competing in the big league against professional theaters of all genres.
Talk to Baker for even a few minutes and he’ll convince you that there’s nothing old-fashioned or musty about Yiddish theater and culture. Baker recalled an observation from the great Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer: “For a 100 years people have said this culture is dying. Singer says in the Jewish tradition there’s a big difference between dead and dying.
“So, Yiddish culture has been dying for well over 100 years,” Baker adds. “With any luck at all it will be dying for a few hundred more. It should die gezunterheit — in good health.”
“Tevye & Friends,” March 18, Kreeger Auditorium, Bender JCC of Greater Washington, 6125 Montrose Road, Rockville. $18 – $22. For tickets, call 301-348-3760.
Playwright Sarah Treem’s “The How and the Why,” on stage at Theater J through March 12, delves deep into evolutionary biology with nary a Jewish theme present in the talkative two-hander.
Treem, who has gained visibility recently in Hollywood as the showrunner for Showtime’s “The Affair,” which she created with Israeli television and film producer Hagai Levi, and as a contributor and writer on the inside politics hit “House of Cards,” is a Jewish writer.
A graduate of Yale’s playwrighting program, who spent some of her youth in the Washington region, Treem doesn’t write “Jewish.” “The How and the Why” deals with two female scientists, one long a groundbreaker in the field, the other just testing her first original hypothesis.
Their relationship is oddly intimate as the play opens, though they have just met. Zelda, played with dashing confidence and perspicacity by Valerie Leonard, is a leader in her field, having set forth The Grandmother Hypothesis, which explains that humans are the only mammals that experience menopause. Her theory (based on the real-life work of late evolutionary biologist George C. Williams of the State University of New York at Stonybrook) states that women live beyond their reproductive years to help childbearing women — who are fully occupied with infants — raise their older children. This allows older children to develop into healthy adults.
Rachel, a graduate student, has asked the question “Why do women menstruate?” since in evolutionary terms it causes such a caloric depletion for women on a monthly basis. She hypothesizes that menstruation is a defense against invasive pathogens that enter the womb, primarily via a partner’s sperm. Unproven, this theory (also postulated in real life by researcher Margie Profet), has the potential to revolutionize modern thinking on women’s bodies and reproduction.
As Rachel, the rising researcher, Katie deBuys is a dichotomous mess. At moments she’s a tough independent young scholar, then she’s a hesitant, anxiety-filled 20-something. Further along she claims allegiance to modern feminism, not willing to marry, but willing to give her boyfriend and fellow researcher equal credit for the theory she literally dreamed up. The sharp contrast to Zelda’s calm confidence lies at the crux of the play’s premise.
Treem has done her homework in this well-researched work, using scientific dialogue and debate to investigate a deeper personal story that has brought these two women together. Some of her plotline tends toward too-perfect connections or pat conclusions.
Director Shirley Serotsky oversees a tight production on Paige Hathaway’s handsome set with its cozy professor’s office in Act 1 and a dive-y Irish pub in Act 2. On Hathaway’s brick back wall of the stage, a collection of portraits of female ancestors of all races and ethnicities hangs as a reminder of our evolutionary diversity and a multicultural family tree of the many matriarchs who have gone through childbearing and menopause to propagate the world.
Treem has posited an interesting conflict between a mature scientist and her younger potential mentee. Their conflict arises by some unexpected news and focuses on the choices of a second-wave feminist who preferred career over family and a post-feminist, who wants it all but is too willing to give up when facing career and research pressures.
A Theater J trademark at this point, “The How and the Why” is a well-made and intelligent 21st-century drama that provides much room for discussion and introduction of new ideas in the cultural conversation — particularly on female perspectives on evolutionary biology.
Is it a Jewish play? Not really. Treem did name her lead character Zelda Kahn, with its decidedly Jewish ring to it, although there’s nary a Jewish moment save for a champagne toast punctuated with a “l’chaim.” “The How and the Why” is a play about life and asks probing questions about who we are as humans and why and who we got this way.
“The How and the Why” through March 12 at Theater J, Edlavitch DCJCC, 1529, 16th St., NW, Washington. Tickets start at $37. Call 202-777-3210 or visit theaterj.org.