Monday, October 12, 2009

And I Am Telling Jew I'm Not Going

Last week offered Bay area audiences a surprising bounty of Jewish film and theater. Topics ranged from Shakespearean Jews to a fictional confrontation between a clown and Adolf Hitler, from conflicted Orthodox Jews trying to break free from the artistic and philosophic confines of their Hassidic ghetto in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn to the hilariously tasteless fantasies emanating from Seth McFarlane's twisted mind in a new episode of Family Guy entitled Family Goy.

Was all of this good for the Jews? That's hard to say. While these cultural events allowed audiences to reexamine classic Jewish stereotypes (both pro and anti-Semitic), I was kept busy and sufficiently entertained.

* * * * * * * *
Written and directed by Edward Cortés, The Clown and the Fuhrer is a film I had been eager to see. When it was first scheduled to be screened at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, there were technical problems which caused the event to be cancelled. This time the screening went off without a hitch.

The Clown and the Fuhrer involves a bitter struggle between four men:
  • Charlie (Ferran Rañé), an internationally beloved clown who is summoned to perform at Hitler's birthday party. As a great artist, Charlie's only obsession is perfecting his art. After many years of performing, he has become accustomed to observing reality from a certain distance.
  • Witzi (Jordi Martinez), the clown who is working with Charlie at the beginning of the film. Because there is Jewish blood in his family, Witzi is deported to a concentration camp. Krauss dangles Witzi's freedom in front of Charlie as a way to keep the clown under his control.
  • Golo (Pere Arquillué), an escaped political prisoner who, having convinced Charlie to let him replace Witzi in the act, is determined to kill Hitler at any cost.
  • Krauss (Manel Barceló), the supremely untalented Superintendent of the Gestapo who has always wanted to perform as a clown and is trying to push his way into the act Charlie will perform in front of the Fuhrer.
In the production notes, Cortés goes to great length to explain the back stories and motivations of these four characters:
"Charlie is portrayed as a genius who has to do a constant balancing act to reconcile his art with the serious political and social events of his day. He is the creator trapped in his own creative world, the genius who focuses all the tensions, then attempts to escape them with the honesty of the only thing he knows: a sincere and professional attempt to make others laugh, trying not to hurt anyone. For a moment, he hovers over dangerous ground, that of the artist without ideology, of the creator so obsessed by his art that he forgets his environment, appearing to turn his back on the serious political and social transformations of the Second World War. But as the film goes on, we discover that below this surface appearance, Rivel is fully conscious of the tragedy of the world and of his times. He is also aware that his art is essentially just a struggle for survival, and that humor may be the only possible way out, the only light in the general gloom.

Witzi represents the cynical, intelligent, caustic and essentially skeptical artist, who uses humor as a safety valve in a desperate and distressing situation but does not know how to, or perhaps does not want to 'go into action.' He is conscious of the injustice of the world around him but the only way he knows to react against it is with his wits and his ironic and sarcastic comments. His account as he is being taken to a concentration camp, his observations, always from the clown’s perspective, swing between humor and horror, revealing his personality: that of the artist aware of reality, but unable to do anything other than distance himself through his art.

Golo wants to change society and combat injustice with a ruthless disregard for conventions by 'going into action.' His only aim is to murder Hitler, even if he endangers his own life, that of Charlie and that of anyone else who gets in his way.

Krauss represents the false artist -- the person who thinks he is an artist when he has no real ability or aptitude. A pathetic character, he is the real survivor of the story. He represents the authority that thinks it understands art. He has wanted to be an artist all his life. At home with his family, particularly his children, he has always acted the clown. We discover that a childhood trauma has driven him to his obsession to act alongside Charlie Rivel, of whom he is an unconditional admirer. This more comic part of his personality now reveals its full horror. He is arrogant, and shows us his coldbloodedness and brutality throughout the film."
As The Clown and the Fuhrer progresses, a constant battle for power emerges. Witzi, who can't keep his political views to himself, is soon eliminated by Krauss who, despite his eager attempts to micromanage Charlie's act, has no talent at all. Just before Charlie must go onstage to perform before Hitler, he realizes that Golo has replaced a prop gun with a real weapon and intends to shoot Hitler. His desperate attempts to prevent Golo from succeeding depend on using every weapon in his clown's arsenal of physical gags without the audience knowing why.

In his director's statement, Cortés notes that:
"What most fascinated me about this story was how it retells an encounter between Charlie Rivel and Adolf Hitler. In all history, we could hardly find two characters more diametrically opposed in what they created: one lived to make his contemporaries laugh, the other lived and died to murder and destroy them. This glance at how their paths crossed lets us recreate a small fragment of our history, and reflect anew on the often strained relationship between art and power."
The Clown and the Fuhrer mixes archival footage of Nazi Germany with scenes of Witzi's deportation. The rehearsal sequences in which Charlie attempts to work with Witzi, Golo, and the talentless Krauss are a poignant setup for the tense final performance at Hitler's birthday celebration. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
Over in Marin County, the 2009 Mill Valley Film Festival is screening an exceptional film written by Gareth Armstrong and directed by Michal Shabtay about one of the most famous Jews in all of literature. The promotional blurb for Shylock reads as follows:
"Stepping in and out of character while trolling around an elegant Dutch theater augmented by life-sized video projections of a modern production of The Merchant of Venice, actor Cahit Ölmez is decidedly "not just talking about plays and acting." Addressing us, his audience, Ölmez excavates Tubal, a minor but freighted Shakespearean creation, the only friend of Merchant's notorious Semitic villain, Shylock. Tubal grants Ölmez fresh access to Shylock, and the scars of the Elizabethan era's rampant anti-Semitism. And though Shakespeare may never have known a Jew, Shylock's tragic dimension has given rise to an unsettling ambiguity winding through centuries of theatrical history to this moment: a provocative meta-theatrical venture seeking nothing less than the chance to set Shylock free."
It takes a while to get used to the multimedia format of Shylock as the film careens from the stage to the street, from an actor soliloquizing in a theatre's grand salon to the actor doubling as Shylock and Tubal as the two characters argue with each other in a backstage dressing room. Often riveting by sheer virtue of its investigatory passion and analytical zeal, Shylock becomes a master class for actors, directors, and scholars in how to dissect a fictional character who has been created against a historical background.

The skill with which Shabtay moves his living lecture from one environment to another while delivering a masterful overview of how Jews were perceived during the era in which The Merchant of Venice (first performed at the court of England's King James I in 1605) is set becomes a masterful juggling act which also traces the history of how Jews have been portrayed in Shakespeare. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
In one of those rare moments of theatrical coincidence, my week was bracketed by two productions of plays by Aaron Posner that were adaptations of novels written by Chaim Potok. Over in Mill Valley, the Marin Theatre Company was offering the West Coast premiere of My Name is Asher Lev in a emotional and poignant staging by Hal Brooks that starred Peter Stadlen, Patrick McNulty, and Danielle Levin. Down in Mountain View, TheatreWorks was staging The Chosen under the strong directorial guidance of Aaron Davidman.

Having the opportunity to see both plays in one week confirmed Posner's dramatic strength in adapting works to the stage. It was especially interesting to see how both works dealt with Jewish traditions, the quest for knowledge, and the struggle to embrace and assert one's individuality in a lifestyle predetermined by tradition. Both plays also deal with the the internal conflicts faced by fathers with strong religious backgrounds who are forced to acknowledge that their sons may be more intellectually and artistically gifted than themselves.

The Chosen offers a glimpse of two parallel Jewish families that are anchored by single fathers. One is an orthodox rabbi, the other a journalist and intellectual. One is a towering figure, respected throughout his community, the other is human, fallible, and suffering from a heart condition.

The Chosen begins with the older Reuven Malter (Michael Navarra) reminiscing about growing up in Williamsburg where, as a young man (Jonathon Bock) he faced off against a young Hassid named Danny Saunders (Thomas Gorrebeeck) in a baseball game that changed both their lives.

Michael Navarra, Thomas Gorrebeeck, and Jonathon Bock
Photo by: Mark Kitaoka

After being hit in the eye with the baseball he had pitched to Saunders, Reuven ends up in the hospital. When Saunders comes to visit him, determined to strike up a friendship which could give him access to a world outside the Hassidic community, a curious relationship between orthodox and conservative Jews begins to develop.

Reuven's father David (Rolf Saxon) is a renowned author even if, as a Zionist, he falls into the category scorned by Danny's father (Corey Fischer) as "Jewish goyim." David and Reuven are deeply attuned to each other's thoughts and lives. They communicate with ease. By contrast, Danny and Reb Saunders live in a home filled with silence, where communication is not just strained, but nearly impossible.

Danny (Thomas Gorrebeeck) and Reuven (Jonathan Bock)
(Photo by: Tracy Martin)

Considering how easily people have been throwing around words like "Nazi" and "Holocaust" during the past year, The Chosen offers a stark reminder of the abject horror felt by Jews as they learned, bit by bit, of the atrocities perpetrated on their relatives by Hitler's forces. In his essay entitled "Choosing Your Life," Robert Kelley, the artistic director for Theatreworks writes:
"In The Chosen, two Jewish teens survive the contentious neighborhoods of post-war Brooklyn guided by powerful fathers, but destined for futures unexpected and unplanned. Their world is one of discovery, from the thrill of athletic competition to the intensity of academic debate, and from the personal agony of parental disappointment to the cultural anguish of a holocaust painfully revealed. Young Reuven and Daniel represent the best of a culture that celebrates the potential of the mind while relishing the delight of disputation. They lead quiet lives amidst a world recently gone mad, a world at least as full of conflict, inhumanity and incivility as our own. Perhaps as a result, both contemplate lives dedicated to improving the lives of others.

They grow up in a world of many cultures, their path forward is defined by the traditions of their own religious upbringing. They are guided by respected fathers (men of both towering strength and subtle weakness) who must learn not only to lead, but also to let go. Armed with their heritage and their friendship, two boys become the men they need to be -- rather than the men they were expected to become. But even within their own community, contentious issues of culture, politics, and purpose cloud their journey. To honor both their fathers' wishes and their own hearts, each must solve a conundrum that haunts humanity still: how to resolve conflicts as recalcitrant as the pitched battles of combative nations, the thundering debates of entrenched scholars, or the playground scuffles of two Brooklyn boys poised to change the world."
Having grown up in Brooklyn, Potok's story was set near familiar territory. My grandparents lived in Boro Park, where there were many Hassids. Often, when we visited, I would be sent out to fetch a copy of The Forward, a Jewish-American newspaper that was published in Yiddish.

The shopping district along Brooklyn's 13th Avenue was sharply divided between businesses serving the Hassidic and Italian communities. Right at its center (50th Street) was Meyer's Kosher Pizzeria (which also made superb cheese knishes). Although my grandparents were not orthodox, I remember once shopping on 13th Avenue after I had moved to Rhode Island. Waiting for a sign that I was "back in the old country," I couldn't help but laugh when I heard a young mother pushing a stroller (with a kid on each arm) hiss "You reach for that candy just once and you're gonna see your teeth go flying across the street!"

Reb Saunders (Corey Fischer), Danny (Thomas Gorrebeeck)
and Reuven (Jonathan Bock). Photo by: Tracy Martin

This production is blessed with a remarkably effective unit set designed by Guilio Cesare Perrone that not only allows the audience to see the book-heavy interiors of each family's apartment, but also facilitates transitions from a baseball field to a hospital room while the older Reuven serves as a modern day Jewish interlocutor. After re-reading Potok's novel, director Aaron Davidman recalls that:
"I was struck by the profound simplicity of two boys going on long walks together. They have the expanse of time to grapple with intellectual and spiritual considerations and they show an honest and passionate desire to truly understand each other and the different worlds from which they come. I was struck, too, by the portrayal of fathers who care so deeply about what their sons not only think, but how their young minds are developing. There is no television to contend with. Popular culture is left on the margins (though it is baseball that brings them together!) And while they study hard and work hard, they take time to think. In accordance with what is perhaps the most central Jewish directive throughout the ages, they take time to wrestle. To wrestle with ideas and the choices they must make to live a life that is worthwhile."
While the cast of four performs as a tight ensemble, late in the second act Reb Saunders (a towering figure portrayed the towering 6'7" Corey Fischer) has a poignant soliloquy in which he talks to his son "through" Reuven. Staged with a heartbreaking honesty, it is the kind of brilliantly-crafted theatrical moment that almost takes away one's breath with the sheer force of its simple beauty.

This is a superbly crafted and acted production of a deeply moving, intensely personal drama. The Chosen continues at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts through November 1. You can (and should) order tickets here.

No comments: