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Theatrical risk-taking is always admirablethere’s so little these days that the very idea deserves applause. And it’s even more admirable when the guiding purpose is the enlarging of the repertory, either by unearthing neglected works or by workshopping new ones.
But risk-taking involves riska fact being demonstrated all too vividly on two of the area’s niche stages this week. Theater J has teamed with the Rorschach Theatre to mount the area premiere of the once-scandalous Yiddish drama God of Vengeance, and Gala Hispanic Theatre has thrown its resources behind the freshly minted comedy Almas Gemelas (“Soul Mates”). Though both plays involve sex, violence, and even a passing kink or two, all the productions manage to arouse is mild curiosity.
Ana and Osvaldo have a perfectly pleasant marriage in Eduardo Rovner’s sitcom, but that doesn’t mean that after two decades together their minds don’t wander and their eyes don’t stray. As depicted in Gala’s briskly comic but disjointed world premiere, the couple is on the verge of coming apart. Both spouses are nurturers, and because they’re also both self-sufficient, they crave other outlets for their mentoring impulses.
As the lights come up on their middle-class apartment in Buenos Aires, Ana (Cynthia Benjamin) appears to have found someone who’s in need of friendly encouragement. She’s chatting with Luis (Bienvenido Martínez), a tool-dropping, stammeringly shy repairman who’s having a look at her knitting machine. Divorced and lonely, Luis is as socially inept as he is physically clumsy, and he seems almost as flustered as Ana does when he lets slip that he once had a crush on her in elementary school. Then he asks for a kiss, and Ana briefly gets swept up in the moment before sending him packing.
A bit later, her lawyer husband, Osvaldo (Hugo Medrano), returns from an afternoon he spent not in court but in a park. He’s clearly excited, and it gradually emerges that the reason is Magda (Florina Lemaitre), a woman he met there. Possibly because Ana has just been tempted herself, she flies into a rage as he waxes lyrical about this other woman’s charms, and when it turns out that Magda is waiting out in the garden, the setup for a conventional romantic comedy seems complete.
What happens next, however, strains conventions well past the breaking point. Ana won’t stop yelling at Osvaldo and Magda, so they bind, gag, and humiliate her, and when she escapes, grabbing a knitting needle as a weapon, she turns the tables on themafter which the author brings back the repairman and returns unconvincingly to lightweight romance and an upbeat denouement.
Though some of the character work is amusing, none of the plot seems remotely plausible. Nor is the evening staged well by Abel López, who barely capitalizes on the physical elements in the setup (Luis is only mildly clumsy) and mostly ignores the psychological elements in the hostage-taking (the removal of pants and the brushing of hair are given roughly the same dramatic weight). Although the performances are energetic, the actors can’t really fight the illogic of what their author and director are requiring of themwhich takes a lot of the fizz out of a show that clocks in at a theoretically snappy 75 minutes.
In a setting that turns the high-ceilinged lobby of the D.C. Jewish Community Center into a persuasively claustrophobic and tawdry Jewish tenement, the Rorschach Theatre and Theater J are having a go at a more polished piece of dramaturgya Yiddish-theater classic that once provoked enormous outrage but now seems rather quaint.
When first produced in this country, in 1923, Sholom Asch’s God of Vengeancewhich chronicles the attempts of a Jewish brothel owner to buy religious respectability for his virginal daughter, not knowing she has a crush on one of the prostitutes in his employwas condemned as pornography. The play concentrates on the father’s pious machinations (he has paid to have every word of the Torah written out by hand) and his distress that his worldly sins may prove the ruination of his only child, but what got the whole cast jailed on obscenity charges was Broadway’s first lesbian-seduction scene.
Contemporary audiences are less likely to be shocked by such a scene and more apt to condemn out of hand any dad who says of his recently deflowered daughter, “If only she’d died young, I could have buried a kosher child.” Still, what makes God of Vengeance a tough slog at Theater J isn’t so much changes in social mores as changes in performance style.
Yiddish theater, which began in the mid-1800s, flourished between the two world wars, and is still preserved by devotees in a few cities, is a specialized genre that involves not just scripts in Yiddish but also a stylized brand of elaborately physical, outsized acting that in virtually any other circumstance would simply seem broad.
The other circumstance has been provided, however, by Caraid O’Brien, who has translated Asch’s script into vernacular English (sample line: “It’s all the same pile of vomit to me”), and the performances consequently feel mannered and overwrought. Jenny McConnell’s staging is clever about visualsshe brings on the prostitutes before a word is spoken and has them hovering throughout in a hall festooned with lingerie-filled clotheslinesbut she’s allowed her principal actors to do more flat-out yelling than O’Brien’s essentially conversational script can support.
Among the performers, Jon Cohn and Lindsay Allen make reasonably nuanced impressions as a young pimp and the whore he may marry, and Emerie Snyder is sylphlike as the daughter on whom the action centers. Still, for patrons used to the comparative subtlety of Theater J’s usual offerings, the evening will register principally as a curious novelty. CP