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Reality bites. In recent years, D.C. playgoers have seen fictionalized versions of Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff, closeted red-baiter (and paradoxically, Donald Trump mentor) Roy Cohn, and long-serving Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The Scalia drama, The Originalist, returns to Arena Stage on July 7.
But the night before that, the Capital Fringe Festival will host the premiere of another play about a powerful conservative whose departure was swift and surprising: Bernard “Barry” Freundel, the rabbi who led Georgetown’s Kesher Israel synagogue for 25 years before being arrested in 2014 for voyeurism.
Freundel was accused of making secret video recordings of women from his congregation as they undressed to use the mikvah, a ritual bath. Most of his victims were converts or students, women he was helping to shepherd into the faith. His primary device was a clock radio with a camera concealed inside. He edited the videos, organizing them and labeling them, as police discovered when they raided his residence and seized a dozen computers along with various portable storage drives. In 2015, Freundel pleaded guilty to filming 52 women without their knowledge, though some 100 additional victims were unable to press charges because the statute of limitations had expired. He was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison.
A.J. Campbell, 48, who was raised a Modern Orthodox Jew in Southern California before coming to D.C. in the early aughts, followed the case in the press obsessively. Having spent most of her career as a graphic artist, she’d been itching to take another run at playwriting, a pursuit she’d experimented with in her early twenties. Her early efforts are, she says now, “unwatchable.” Constructive Fictions, which imagines Freundel in his jail cell as he is visited by four women—composites of his victims—is her third play, and her first contribution to the Fringe Festival. It’ll be her first as an attendee, too, though she says she sees plays “as often as I can afford it.”
Campbell describes herself now as a Conservative, a strain of Judaism that she says is “more egalitarian and discussion friendly” than Orthodoxy. Conservatives also permit women to become rabbis, which is forbidden in Orthodox practice. She says Freundel fascinated her because his word was considered unimpeachable where conversions are concerned. “He was obsessed with determining who’s really a Jew,” she says. “He had a need to be a gatekeeper.”
Converting to Judaism is much more difficult than converting to Christianity or Islam and much is left to the discretion of your rabbi, Campbell notes. The process is long and expensive, and in the end just because one rabbi says you’re Jewish doesn’t necessarily mean that every other rabbi must accept you as a member of the tribe.
Moreover, the rabbi who oversees your conversion is important. “It’s a little like going to college, in that where you go to college matters,” Campbell explains. “In Orthodox conversion, you can be in process for years, until the rabbi says you’re ready. You sort of have to prove yourself.”
But Freundel served as the leader of the Rabbinical Council’s conversion committee—which meant that his word was rarely questioned in such affairs.
As the bearded, rotund, now-65-year-old Freundel, she and director David Moretti cast Matty Griffiths, a 52-year-old actor whose face may be familiar to Capital Fringe veterans from his long tenure overseeing its food and beverage operation. If you bought a beer or a half-smoke or a hummus plate at the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent Bar between 2008 and 2014, before Capital Fringe moved into its new permanent headquarters in Trinidad, you probably met him. Griffiths was more recently seen in an almost-wordless but emotionally powerful role at Forum Theatre in the teen pregnancy drama Dry Land last spring.
For what it’s worth, Griffiths is not Jewish. He says he discussed the role with friends who serve in leadership roles in their own religious communities, to try to understand their sense of obligation. He also read some of Freundel’s extensive writings to prepare for the part, but he’s making no attempt to mimic the man’s speech, even though there are many videos of him publicly available. Campbell used them to help her write, she says. She submitted a request to Frendel’s attorney for an interview with the disgraced rabbi but didn’t receive a response.
Campbell says her imagined version of Freundel comes from her belief that he made the videos more out of a drive for control than for sexual gratification. She thinks he might have justified the years of spying by convincing himself it was necessary to verify that his converts were performing the prescribed sequence of Orthodox bathing and grooming tasks properly.
In her fiction, she uses the names of the four Biblical matriarchs—Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel—for her composite women. “Leah’s story is really my own story,” she says. Her premise is that Freundel must endure their nightly visitations until he admits why he committed his crimes.
In September 2015, the rabbi published a letter of apology in Washington Jewish Week. “It was awful,” Campbell says. “He didn’t get it.”
July 6, 7, 8, 20 and 23. Eastman Studio Theatre, Florida Avenue NE and 8th Street NE. $17. capitalfringe.org.