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Passing the Love of Women

by Rich See

If love has led us astray, then strays we were meant to be.
---Ziesl to Azriel

David Covington as Azriel and Karl Miller as Ziesl in <I>Passing The Love OF Women</I at Theater J.  Photo by Stan Barouh
D. Covington and K. Miller
(Photo: Stan Barouh)
In these days of "Will and Grace," "Queer Eye for The Straight Guy," "The L Word," "Queer As Folk," and other popular TV shows, gay characters are increasingly becoming more empowered and being portrayed in more balanced ways. No longer are we constantly being portrayed as insane, tragic, confused, pathetic souls tortured by our illicit lusts. So what's a theater to do if they want to dredge up a bit of old-style melodrama about gay men? Go to the 19th century and then you can kill them off - or better yet have them kill themselves off - with impunity. That way you are just representing a time period. Making art. Creating a discussion. Unfortunately with Theater J's newest offering, Passing The Love Of Women, there is very little discussion. Lots of melodrama. But almost no discussion.

Motti Lerner and Israel Zamir adapted Passing The Love Of Women from a short story titled "Two" by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Additional material for the stage adaptation was contributed by Hanan Snir and the work is translated by Hillel Halkin. Theater J has been working for over a year, in tandem with the Habimah Theater in Tel Aviv (where the production is currently running in repertory), to bring the English adaptation to the stage. With all this time, energy, attention, and money one would expect a graceful production that flows smoothly and offers a thought-provoking portrayal of societal repression and young gay love. However, if you want serious artistic discussion, a made-for-Lifetime movie of the week might offer a bit more in the way of philosophical debate.

Theater J's production has been directed by Daniel De Raey who has the actors sounding very much like they are in the 21st century, although the play is set in Poland in the mid-19th. Something isn't right with the actors' cadence, intonation, and speech patterns, but its hard to put your finger on as to what the problem is -- whether it's the dialog as written or the way the lines are being delivered. Daniel Conway's set is quite impressive. It's all wood and huge stone tableaus, which offers a feeling of height and depth, and works well with Dan Covey's lighting. Kate Turner-Walker's costumes transport you back to the era quite nicely.

In the cast, Karl Miller as Ziesl, perhaps reaches for and achieves the most in trying to present the pathos and truth in his character's life. It's up to him to present the rational, sane voice via a character that is viewed as insane. Unfortunately, the rants that emerge from his father Rabbi Yudl Kuznitzer (portrayed by Mitchell Hebert) are so loud and ferocious that Ziesl's responses are like a small voice in a giant storm. David Covington presents Azriel's guilt and self-torture well, however, the director's choice to use actors who in no way resemble the age range of the characters creates an emotional (and sympathetic) disconnect with the audience since we have to remind ourselves that these men on stage are actually representing teenagers. Caren Anton as Elke portrays the mother of Ziesl and Reyzele with great humor. As the two girls proclaiming their undying love for the two men, Elizabeth Jernigan as Reyzele and Amy Montminy as Esther'l do what they can with their one-dimensional characters. Grady Weatherford, Joel Snyder, Martha Karl, and Tim Getman round out the cast.

The story line goes like this...Ziesl and Azriel are two seventeen year old Talmudic scholars who fall in love while studying the Torah, though at first they think they simply want to spend all their time together to expand their religious knowledge. Unfortunately for these two young men they are born in 19th century Poland into an oppressive religious culture with adults trying to decide their futures. When Ziesl is married off without his consent, Azriel decides to flee his shattered world. After his wedding night, Ziesl dons a dress and runs off with Azriel and thus they start a new life as man and wife. Ziesl's father the autocratic rabbi follows them, finds them, warns them about their illicit passions, and then promptly dies due to -- as his ghost comes back to tell us -- his son's sins and his fear of God's wrath at his almost accepting his sons shortcomings. That's actually the nice response, because when poor Ziesl's mother finds him she announces "I wish I knew a curse that would kill you." And then we have the characters of Reyzele and Esther'l, the women in love with our heroes. Both are pining for years over men they hardly know and refuse to accept the idea that the men don't love them but love each other. So to be fair, no one is empowered in this tale, except for the adults who are driven to make everyone as unhappy as possible in order to fulfill the Torah's commandment of procreation. Although, interestingly, for all this talk of marriage and love, none of the married people are happy in their unions. The only healthy relationship is Ziesl and Azriel's, but that one eventually falls to the wayside, buried beneath the rubble of the societal demands. And so the story goes on -- Ziesl gets recruited to run the women's bathhouse, Azriel succumbs to his religious and societal induced guilt and wants momentarily to get together with Reyzele, Esther'l has a baby to Ziesl, the ghost of dead daddy dearest comes back to inform Ziesl that his son died at birth due to his horrific sins and that Ziesl himself will burn in the perpetual fires of hell. And on and on it goes for two and a half hours But to break the monotony of the rabid rabbi's ghost -- who represents the huge guilt that the two men feel for their love and who keeps coming back to spew more venom -- we have the character of Elkhonen (portrayed by Tim Getman) as the jester-like storyteller. He's a lazy lout, but he knows everybody's business.

The whole production reads like the writers were uncomfortable with the subject matter, could figure out no real discussion beyond the religious dogma being presented, and so decided the best response was to have a buffoon play jester and bring in the laughs at the level of a TV sitcom. It's as though it has all been designed to alleviate the perceived fears of straight audiences, thus we have the same tired tittering at the sight of a man putting on a woman's dress. In this uneven production we have Ziesl in sudden transgendered confusion -- not because he is transgendered or has exhibited any transgendered behavior but because he is forced to wear a dress all the time and thus begins to question his gender assignment. (Maybe it's because by simply putting on a dress and a scarf everyone immediately accepts him as a woman.) No new ground is broken, no thoughtful discussion takes place, no real substance, depth, or character development is created. It doesn't even feel like the writers made any attempt to understand things from the gay or transgendered perspective.

Passing the Love of Women
based upon the short story "Two" by Isaac Bashevis Singer
Adapted by Motti Lerner and Israel Zamir
Additional material adapted for the stage by Hanan Snir
Translated by Hillel Halkin
Directed by Daniel De Raey
with Mitchell Hebert, Caren Anton, Elizabeth Jernigan, Karl Miller, David Covington, Amy Montminy, Grady Weatherford, Joel Snyder, Martha Karl, Tim Getman
Set Design: Daniel Conway
Lighting Design: Dan Covey
Costume Design: Kate Turner-Walker
Sound Design: Mark Anduss
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with 1 intermission
A production of Theater J
Washington DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th Street NW
Telephone: Tickets 1-800-494-TIXS, Info 202-777-3229
WED - THUR @7:30, SAT @8, SUN @3 and 7:30; $26-$35
Opening 05/05/04, closing 06/06/04
Reviewed by Rich See based on 05/09/04 performance
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