Better to have more show, less tell

Review: Gabriella Lev's one-woman show at Theatre Project gives us a thoroughly modern `Esther.'

March 15, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Part lecture, part performance art, part dialogue with the audience and part traditional drama, Theatre Company Jerusalem's "Esther" is a little like seeing sections of the Talmud, the ancient Jewish commentaries on the Old Testament, acted out on stage.

In this idiosyncratic one-woman show, however, the commentaries have a strong feminist slant and draw parallels to the Holocaust.

The thought-provoking show has arrived at the Theatre Project just in time to serve as a lead-in to the Jewish holiday of Purim, which celebrates the story of Esther. (The holiday falls on March 21 this year).

Performed in English with snippets of Hebrew, the play begins with playwright/performer Gabriella Lev seated behind a table topped with a suitcase. Hanging from the suitcase are yards and yards of richly colored fabrics, four of which represent the main characters in the story: Glittering lame for Esther, the beautiful orphaned Jewess; blue silk for her Uncle Mordechai; red velvet for the Persian king, Ahashverosh; and an enormous swathe of velvet and brocade for the king's evil prime minister, Haman.

Walking to the edge of the stage, Lev asks members of the audience what they know about Esther, briefly summarizing the story of the brave queen who saved her people from slaughter. Esther's age turns out to be one of many mysteries surrounding this legendary heroine. Telling us there are theories suggesting ages from 19 to 93, Lev concludes, "She is ageless. She is every woman."

She points out that God is never mentioned in the story, which may be why the ancient rabbis were reluctant to include the account in the Bible. However, as the daughter of Holocaust survivors, Lev also says, "In my world, the world of potential Holocaust, God is a fool." She then reminds us that the fool is often the wisest character in Shakespeare's plays.

Lev does a lot more telling than showing in "Esther," and there are times when the play feels like an extremely well-crafted Sunday school lesson.

She also has a tendency to drain some of the impact from scenes by explaining what she has just demonstrated. For example, to indicate Haman's thirst for power, she completely covers the king's throne with the vast expanse of fabric that symbolizes Haman. A nice visual effect, it's also perfectly clear and her subsequent explanation is redundant.

The short intermissionless piece comes to life, however, when Lev enacts brief scenes connecting Esther's story to her own childhood, growing up in Australia surrounded by adults who survived the concentration camps. "It's a shame we didn't have an Esther to come and save us," Lev's mother says while sewing her young daughter's Esther costume for Purim.

Lev explains that, as a child, she learned about the Holocaust from eavesdropping at the card parties her parents held with fellow survivors. In the production's final scene, she interweaves an adult card party in Australia with Haman throwing lots to pick the day the Jews will die.

It's the show's most moving moment, in large part because this time, Lev the performer overrules Lev the lecturer and wisely lets the moment stand on its own.

`Esther

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $20

Call: 410-752-8558

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