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The beam of a flashlight and the whirring motor of a leaf-blower break through darkness and silence as an orange-vested city worker walks down the aisle soon to awake Tel Aviv’s homeless. An old woman (Ofra Daniel) puts on a heavy cloak patched from castoffs, looking like a prophetess from an imagined antiquity, and tells the tale of a beautiful woman with long black hair, running naked through the streets of Jerusalem at night searching for her lover, blurting disconnected lines of poetry before the night watchmen catch her. She is cast out from the Old City. The Old Woman is, of course, telling the story how she came to Tel Aviv where the youth venerate her as the “Crazy Poet of Love.” But before this time, she was called Tirzah.
Growing up in a Haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem, Tirzah’s family marries her off to a fifth-generation fishmonger and a widower 20 years her senior (Sasha Olinick). They have little to say to one another, and though he had three sons with his previous wife, they have no children together and live in passionless banality. On her 30th birthday, Tirzah receives the first of many anonymous love poems whose verses many will recognize from The Song of Songs.
Whether one accepts the tradition that it was written by King Solomon in the 10th century BCE or the scholarly consensus that it was composed in the 3rd century BCE, if The Song of Songs is not the oldest sequence of erotic poetry extant, it’s probably the oldest read outside of academia. Its celebration of sexual love with no reference to God or ritual made its inclusion in the Hebrew Bible a source of controversy among rabbis of antiquity: Many sages attempted to read an esoteric theology into its verses.
Such piety holds little interest for Daniel, who also wrote the book, lyrics, and, with Lior Ben-Hur, the music of Love Sick. She draws inspiration directly from verses in which lovers describe their beloveds as smelling like fragrant spices, likening bodies to succulent fruits or graceful fawns, or to the monumental towers that rise above the cities. As every new poem arrives at her front door, Tirzah wonders if her anonymous lover (Ali Paris, who also serves as music director and qanun player) might spy her when she ventures into the marketplace, or when and where they will finally rendezvous. Her ecstasies increasingly scandalize both her husband and the gossiping women of Jerusalem (a capable ensemble of Sarah Corey, Sarah Laughland, Kara-Tameika Watkins, and Kanysha Williams). But these erotic reveries have a tragic dimension: A community that values a happy home may be able to accept unremarkable unhappiness, but not unbridled ecstasy.
Daniel, no surprise, can sing and dance, but what sells her performance is how she embodies Tirzah, from the stooped shoulders of the crazy poet of Tel Aviv to the awkwardness of a reluctant bride and clumsy housewife, to the woman running through the streets of Jerusalem after midnight.
Daniel and Ben-Hur accompany the poetry with a vibrant tapestry of musical traditions from Israel, where they were born, and San Francisco, where they currently make their home. The sextet freely mingles with the cast and provide a wide range of rhythms, timbres, and textures with bowed, plucked, and strummed strings, percussion, and woodwinds.
Choreographer Matt Cole’s dance vocabulary draws from Israeli folk dancing for the ensemble pieces, and the sensual undulations of belly dancing, but is expansive enough to include ribald physical comedy, and in the case of such numbers as “The Fish Song,” weird surrealism.
Misha Kachman’s scenic design, while dominated by the huge leafless tree whose branches refuse to be contained by the proscenium arch, evokes the gorgeous dilapidation of parts of downtown Tel Aviv, including the bus stop on Allenby Street and the graffiti that seems to mark nearly every wall of some neighborhoods. Kelsey Hunt dresses the cast and orchestra in colorfully textured costumes.
Love Sick marks not just the opening of Theater J’s new season but their return to their theater space at the Edlavitch JCC after a year of wandering from space to space while the building was being renovated. It is fitting to test the new sound system and lighting rigs with such an extraordinary musical spectacle.
To Sept. 29 at 1529 16th St. NW. $30–$69. (202) 777-3210. theaterj.org