‘Sotto Voce’ a still, small voice at Theater J

2017-10-11 11:36:20 david-holzel

Brigid Cleary and Andrés C. Talero in Nilo Cruz’s “Sotto Voce,” at Theater J through Oct. 29. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

The last ship to leave Nazi Germany in 1939 carried 937 passengers on a voyage to Cuba, just as Europe was being overtaken by Hitler’s advancing army. The S.S. St. Louis arrived in the Havana harbor, where only 28 passengers were allowed to disembark. The rest remained at sea, turned away from Cuba and then the United States, only to return to Europe where 254 of those refugees perished in the Holocaust.

This back story sets the scene for Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz’s “Sotto Voce,” the season opener at Theater J, at the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, that touches on the Cuban-Jewish experience while the shadow of the world refugee crisis lingers.

Set at the turn of the millennium, “Sotto Voce” is an unusual love story in which the principals don’t meet face to face. German matriarch Bemadette lives in a New York City high rise that she never leaves, comfortably ensconced in her upscale penthouse with a view of the park. A successful novelist, Bemedette writes and banters with her housekeeper, Lucila. Into this tightly defined universe, Saquiel turns up and turns her well-defined world upside down.

A Cuban student researching the histories of the passengers of the St. Louis, Saquiel seeks to interview Bemedette about her long ago relationship with a Jewish passenger on the ship, Ariel Strauss. An air of mystery surrounds Bemedette’s long past love affair and whether she has any information that will be of interest to this research. They correspond via email, he addressing her as “Dear Writer,” she, him as “Dear Student,” and via voicemail messages, spoken by the actors onstage.

Brigid Cleary, with her patrician air and aquiline nose, carries herself with impeccable grace as Bemadette. Her German accent, ageless smile and excitable demeanor when faced with bad or pushy manners are thoughtfully played.

As Saquiel, Andres Talero cuts a handsome figure in his slim black jeans and black leather jacket. Talero gives his character a slightly bad-boy undertone, one that both women, the older Bemadette and the younger Lucila can’t resist.

In the May-December phone romance, Cruz demonstrates how important language is in the game of attraction. As Lucila, Desiree Marie Velez is both subservient and bold, astutely understanding her boss’s foibles and demands and sharing intimate secrets and playfully teasing her. It’s a friendship, but Bemadette remains boss.

Director Jose Carrasquillo is no stranger to Theater J; his previous credits including “After the Fall” and “The Body of An American.” Cruz’s play, though, is a challenge. It takes place in a single room, Bemadette’s living room.

Frequently, the outsider Saquiel communicates via phone or email and on a stage with no props, just a desk and a few chairs, Carrasquillo places the actor in varying spots, making these transitions to technological conversations via phone or email harder to discern and squelching the flow. Cruz is neither a naturalistic nor realistic playwright; thus it seems that a little more imagination in enlivening these distinct conversations could assist in the flow of what is, at times, a clunky evening.

While the story carries its own intrigue, the larger issue of immigration policy — during World War II and today — sometimes takes a back seat. Saquiel suffers from a U.S. immigration regulation that prohibits him from reentering the country. Lucila, too, lives under the looming specter of tightened immigration policies. Playwright Cruz has both these characters express their disappointment and discouragement but, unlike those immigrants 58 years ago on the St. Louis, neither returning to Cuba nor Colombia merits a death sentence.

Many of our Jewish institutions of late in the United States are supporting the cause of fair and open immigration policies, placing signs on synagogue front lawns, participating in marches and, recently, “adopting” refugee families to help them acclimate and become American. Yet, “Sotto Voce” is a soft sell. HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, has found new voice and new purpose by extending its mission and its reach to refugees of other religious backgrounds and cultures. It is a co-sponsor of the production.

The title of the play derives from Italian and means a low or soft voice, a trait Bemadette found attractive in her conversations with young admirer Saquiel. Yet, “Sotto Voce” suggests a message for our time that needs to ring out, not whisper.

“Sotto Voce,” by Nilo Cruz, through Oct. 29. Theater J, Edlavitch DCJCC, 1529 16th St. NW¸ Washington. Tickets: $39-$69. Call 202-777-3210 or visit for information.

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Rabbi at the Fringe

2017-07-10 12:22:53 david-holzel

Matty Griffiths portrays Rabbi Barry Freundel of Washington in the Capital Fringe Festival production of “Constructive Fictions,” a fictional retelling of the Freundel scandal,
Photo by A.J. Campbell


A modern-day morality play, set in our own Washington Jewish community is sure to ruffle some feathers and get people talking again about the notorious “Peeping Tom” rabbi, Barry Freundel, who is serving a six-and-a-half year sentence for secretly filming 52 women in the bathroom of a ritual bath.

“Constructive Fictions,” a world premiere by local playwright A.J. Campbell, borrows heavily from the Freundel case, using his name and his outsized persona to mold this highly unlikeable character for instructive purposes. On stage at the Eastman Studio Theatre on Gallaudet University’s campus through July 23, the play takes an unvarnished look at a power-hungry rabbi and the devastation he causes to a quartet of women who represent the many women he victimized at a moment of spiritual holiness.

A.J. Campbell, a Takoma Park resident and member of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, felt compelled to write the piece as she closely watched the scandal unfold. Using court documents, press reports and materials in the public record, she has created a fictional retelling in the voices of the rabbi and some of his victims that attempts to understand what lies at the roots of the once-powerful man’s crimes and misdemeanors.

Campbell presents Freundel in a spare, ugly cellblock. A picture of Ivanka Trump is taped to a wall, suggesting — as the Freundel character does later in the play — his proximity to American political power. As Freundel, actor Matty Griffiths, bearded and oily hair graying under a kippah, wears his orange prison jumpsuit with a sense of disdain, paralleling the disdain he must have had for his students and congregants he secretly recorded.

Later, in a scene imagined at his pulpit, he dons a tallit and gives a rabbinic drash, subtly sermonizing away his own guilt by postulating the loopholes in Halacha — Jewish law — when it comes to his case, even asserting that he doesn’t need to ask for forgiveness.

Joining Griffiths onstage, Natasja Handy as Leah, Anna Paliga as Rachel, Gianna Rapp as Rebecca and Helen Bard-Sobola as Sarah represent four women at distinct moments in their lives who were violated by Freundel. Named for the biblical matriarchs, they serve as a modest court, revealing their stories of using the mikvah for conversion, to learn about Judaism, to cement a marriage and to recover from familial abuse.

These women are the heroines of the work, representing both those who came forth to testify at the trial and the many more anonymous victims who were also entwined in the controversy and appeared in the thousands of hours of videos he collected and saved and watched again and again, at least according to the playwright’s account.

The work is an important one, though in this first version as part of the 2017 Capital Fringe Festival, both the acting and the production border on the amateurish. The play, too, can use some close editing. That said, “Constructive Fictions” should not be discounted. Viewing it as a work-in-progress with tremendous potential for its undeniable relevance to 21st century American Judaism makes it among the more compelling plays debuting this summer season.

For the most important question today — the existential question for modern Jews — is “Who is a Jew?” In an era when every Jew is a “Jew by Choice” — the term that many who convert to Judaism use — Freundel asserted his power over those who wished to have the most “kosher” and respectable conversions. He became widely known in the United States and in Israel as one of the few rabbis whose converts would be accepted by the Israeli rabbinical courts without question.

Opening the week when more than 150 rabbis, among them prominent American Orthodox leaders (like Freundel was prior to his public downfall) have been “blacklisted” by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate for conversions that are claimed not to follow Jewish law, “Constructive Fictions” carries an extra frisson.

For the ability to deem some Jews acceptable and some not in the eyes of Israeli law, is a most frightening power play by the Israeli rabbinate, particularly among secular and more liberal streams of Judaism. If only a select few rabbis control who is an “official” Jew by marriage or conversion, that rocks the very foundations of the Jewish people. Will Israel write them off? Or will hundreds of thousands of non- or less- observant Jews write off Israel? Either way, disaster looms in the sheer uncertainty when the questions of who is a Jew arises.

Playwright Campbell, who grew up in an Orthodox community in Los Angeles observing the intimidating power some rabbis held over their congregants and acolytes, takes on the Freundel case to demonstrate the highly destructive nature of his crimes. He wasn’t a simple “Peeping Tom,” as if that would make his crimes easier to take. Violations of trust and modesty, confidence and privacy, too, are paramount.

But Campbell makes it clear that he was seeking the ultimate control over the lives and decisions of his targets, victims of multiple crimes, which have a much larger ramification for the larger Jewish community. Will we no longer be able to trust our Jewish spiritual leaders?

“Constructive Fictions” takes on that issue boldly and unapologetically, allowing the story — no simple fiction — to become an enduring lesson about the abuse of power and position for Jews and non-Jews alike.

“Constructive Fictions,” by A.J. Campbell, 2017 Capital Fringe Festival at Gallaudet University Eastman Studio Theatre, Florida Avenue NE and 8th St. NE., Washington; July 20 at 9:30 p.m. and July 23 at 1:45 p.m. Tickets: $17 (plus Fringe Button $7). Tickets may be purchased online at or at 866-811-4111.

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A family's shattered illusions

2017-06-22 07:42:57 david-holzel

Gregory Linington and Kimberly Gilbert in Arthur Miller’s 1994 psychological drama “Broken Glass” at Theater J through July 9. Photo by Teresa Wood


In 1938, Sylvia Gellburg’s world was breaking. The Nazis were overrunning Europe and Kristallnacht — the Night of Broken Glass — shattered any illusions that Jews could live quiet, undisturbed lives.
At home in Brooklyn, then still bucolic, her life was equally cracked. Her 25-year marriage to Phillip was tearing at the seams, yet neither wife nor husband could find a thread to mend their relationship. And one day, Sylvia collapses, her legs paralyzed. She’s stuck, broken, her once vibrant life in shards. And no one can figure out why.

Arthur Miller’s infrequently produced play “Broken Glass” is his most baldly and boldly Jewish. Theater J has revived this later Miller work. And though it is not one of his great dramas, it is prescient for our time. The piece, which closes Theater J’s first season under its new artistic director Adam Immerwahr, runs at the Goldman Theater of the Edlavitch DCJCC through July 9.

Director Aaron Posner strips “Broken Glass” to its bare essentials, eschewing an elaborate set for a video backdrop that displays historic and evocative black-and-white photos and film clips of Europe’s Jews during Hitler’s rise to power.

On the plank floor stage, just a few wooden chairs and benches serve the cast of six in scenes that toggle between the Gellburgs’ Brooklyn flat and Phillip’s office and a doctor’s office. Posner follows Miller’s stage direction that a cello should accompany the scene changes, for the cello for many sounds close to the human voice. Yet, strangely, the songs heard were not period pieces from Brooklyn, instead the Israeli cellist Udi Bar-David (on screen) contributed mostly popular Hebrew folk dance songs, an odd interpretation by sound designer Justin Schmitz.

The presence of Europe’s Jews — Hitler’s victims — is fundamental to this production. Projection designer Mark Costello worked with archivists from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to select photos and films from its archives. Cut through like shards of broken glass, they appear as memento mori in oversized pictures frames serving as the backdrop images. This design element contributed by Andrew Cohen serves as a stark reminder that the shadow of the Holocaust that hangs over the events — and over post-World War II American Judaism.

Lisa Bruneau portrays Sylvia as a vibrant, smart woman struck down by a mysterious malady. She’s baffled by the cause and sorry that her immobility has an effect on those around her, particularly her husband and her sister, Harriet (Michele Osherow in a strong supporting role). Interestingly, a surprising subtext (for Miller was no feminist) allows Sylvia to finally discover and use her voice after years of silence in her marriage.

Gregory Linington imbues neighborhood physician Dr. Harry Hyman with a magnanimous personality; he’s open, easygoing, curious and, for Sylvia, both highly attractive and easy to talk to. He diagnoses Sylvia with hysterical paralysis and dabbles in some amateur psychotherapy to uncover the cause and cure, to no avail. Dr. Hyman is very much the opposite of Phillip, a dark, brooding silent type, who, according to Dr. Hyman’s wife, “sighs a lot.” He’s as hard to like as Dr. Hyman is charming.

As Phillip, long-time regional actor Paul Morella is rail thin and tightly wound, a mortgage adjuster — the only Jews in a WASPish company, he proudly notes. But he frequently exhibits a self-hating attitude toward his Jewish identity, commenting on the stuck up German Jews or exhorting his wife to ignore the heart-breaking news of Jews in Europe.

Jewish identity is at the root of Miller’s “Broken Glass,” for in the shadow of Kristallnacht and Hitler’s rise to power, Sylvia can’t stop obsessing about the bad news she reads daily – old Jews being forced to clean the street on hands and knees with a toothbrush, children separated from parents, Nazis coming to power.

And while everyone tells her to ignore the pending doom, she sits in her Brooklyn home impotent, unable to act, unable to move. This inability to do anything in the face of a global crisis hits home hard in 2017, too, when the 24-hour news cycle inundates us with reports of global, local and national crises — from terrorism, both home grown and international, to alarming reports of racism and anti-Semitism, to an American government in daily disarray and turmoil.

Fear of action, fear of — to use an au currant word — “resistance,” fear of simply facing reality has stunted the Gellburgs. Their marriage, like many long-term marriages, has in many respects long been a sham. The impotency that has invaded their lives is a stand-in for the many millions of Jews, Americans and Europeans who stood by idly and allowed a fascist, murderous cancer in the guise of Adolf Hitler to overtake Europe.

“Broken Glass,” coming late in Miller’s body of work, is a not-so-subtle indictment of those who stood idly by as the Nazi killing machine that overtook Europe. Even costume designer Tyler Gunther’s choice of striped pajamas in one scene recalls the harsh striped uniforms of the concentration camps. It’s not Miller’s best work — the reason it’s not often performed — but it is most relevant in ways he could have never imagined  for the growing instability and rising fascist tendencies sprouting on American democratic soil.

“Broken Glass,” through July 9, Theater J, Edlavitch DCJCC, 1529 16th St. NW, Washington. Tickets start at $37. Call 202-777-3210 or visit

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‘Her’ and ‘Him’ uncover a mystery in a Tel Aviv auto repair shop in ‘The Return’

2017-06-15 07:33:49 david-holzel

Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan and Ahmad Kamal in “The Return,” at Mosaic Theater Company of D.C.
Photo by Stan Barouh

Billed as a mystery, Mosaic Theater’s American premiere of “The Return” is more than a whodunit. In fact, even as it wrestles with guilt of its two nameless characters — Him and Her — there’s far more going on than solving a crime. Scenic designer Colin Bill set up an us-versus-them or Her-versus-Him dynamic as the audience faces one another seated on two sides of a long driveway in a suburban Tel Aviv auto repair shop. The two protagonists face and face off against each other from two ends of the asphalt, on one side a corrugated metal door, on the other foreboding prison-like bars.

The 90-minute two-character play by Palestinian-American writer and actor Hanna Eady and Seattle-based Edward Mast is an installment in Mosaic Theater’s Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival, intended to amplify often unheard voices amid the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Running through July 2, “The Return” wrestles with identity, individuality and the overriding powers of the state in a nuanced production that is both searing for its insurmountable problems, and provocative for its unvarnished look at how a society treats an “other.”

Washington-area audiences may recall Eady from his performance in Jewish-Israeli playwright Motti Lerner’s “The Admission,” which dealt boldly and baldly with the disputed history of a 1948 massacre of Arabs by Jews during Israel’s War of Independence.

The controversy became so heated that the full production at Theater J was scaled back to a workshop and the ongoing disputes about the play and its veracity ultimately led to then-Theater J director Ari Roth’s firing.

Shortly after, in late 2014, he founded Mosaic Theater, a company that allows him more latitude to deal with incendiary issues, from the violent history in South Africa to Israel’s occupation of Arab territories to violence on inner city streets.

“The Return” begins as a woman enters the auto repair shops, says “Shalom,” then proceeds to badger the technician. He remains polite, calling her ma’am, and suggesting that perhaps she should return after the Sabbath, when the owner and others would be available. But she persists. He’s an “other”, an Arab, and initially it appears as if she can run roughshod over him with insinuations, nosy questions and accusations. She insists that he must know her. Then she suggests that his Palestinian identity makes him suspect: “You mean they let you work on army jeeps?” If nothing else, it marks him.

The supposed mystery — who are these two people, did they ever meet, and why is she so implacable in her relentless questions? — like a Rubik’s Cube, gets revealed in the play’s turns, twists and reconfigurations as this Friday afternoon meeting continues on subsequent weeks.

The female protagonist, Her, is persistent and unrelenting in delving deeper into this supposed stranger’s past.

Eventually, it becomes clear that a sexual assault occurred. Or, perhaps, it was consensual?

Each side has a different narrative to relate, a different way of viewing and re-telling their histories. And the question arises: Would it have been different if their national and personal narratives were different?

As Her, Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan enters like a gale force wind, all bluster, haranguing her victim, Him, Ahmad Kamal, who tries mightily to remain obsequious to his interrogator’s accusations. They spar at each other from two sides of a landing-strip like driveway in the unflattering, utilitarian light, traffic sounds and noise from the auto workshop marking the gritty, working-class location.

Director John Vreeke allows both characters to discover and reveal deep hurts, and Her, especially, digs in like a child picking at a scab until it bleeds. Her opponent simmers at her incessant queries until he explodes. She’s gone too far, there’s no turning back.

Then she pushes further. “The Return” is a play about two individuals and two peoples — one of privilege and one oppressed. The Her character has taken upon herself the mantel of white guilt. She naively and erroneously believes she can make a difference. Her need to assuage privilege leads down a destructive path, one where there is no turning back.

Playwrights Eady and Mast portray the larger Israeli establishment as an enemy of the Palestinian people, and from descriptions from the character Him, it sounds like it hews very closely to a totalitarian regime. They also choose to unsparingly show the inadequacy of good intentions in the face of the larger political conflict. Both points of view will leave many — particularly Israel supporting — audiences discomfited.

Yet for those who leave “The Return” stating that it could never happen in Israel, that it’s a fiction, take note: Eady and Mast based the premise of the play on a 2010 case of an Arab Israeli who was charged and found guilty of rape for not disclosing his Palestinian identity to a Jewish woman.

Of course, “The Return” is fiction, the characters invented, but as the narrative that unspools, the “mystery” reveals itself: a man who has lost his identity and can’t tell his story and a naïve woman who seeks atonement for sins that are perhaps unforgivable, both her own and her nation’s.

“The Return,” by Hanna Eady and Edward Mast, through July 2, Mosaic Theater at the Atlas Performing Arts Center Sprenger Theatre, 1333 H St. NE, Washington. Tickets: $60-$40. Call 202-399-7993, ext. 2, or visit

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Ulysses’ odyssey to Gaza

2017-05-25 07:15:10 david-holzel

Michael Kevin Darnall as the Palestinian prisoner, left, and Matthew Boston as his Israeli lawyer in “Ulysses on Bottles.”
Photo by Stan Barouh


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 – aside from Izakov, who evolves — the Israeli characters 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

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