Not to put too fine a point on it, this is a show that you must see. Hidden Theatres production of "Isaac" is so goodso stimulating, both intellectually and emotionallythat it may make you feel slightly ashamed of the trifles with which you usually divert yourself.
For those of you who are not People of the Book, or whose knowledge of the Book could stand some brushing up, the source material here is sacred scripture. Leaving aside the fundamentally undramatic story of Job, the story of Abraham and Isaac is the great Biblical test-of-faith tale. According to Genesis, God orders Abraham to take his son Isaac into the wilderness and offer him as a sacrifice. Abrahams faith is such that he is willing to comply; but God stays his hand at the last instant, and thus not only Isaacs life but also Abrahams lineage (i.e., the Jews) is preserved.
Thats the stark telling with which most Christians are acquainted, from the book they call the Old Testament. For Jews, however, the same tale from what they call the Torah is surrounded by a large body of embellishments and interpretations collected in the Talmud, the sacred book of Jewish hermeneutics. In order to flesh out his retelling, playwright David Schulner draws heavily upon Talmudic lore and adds some twists of his own.
"Isaac" is a three-handed piecethe third character being Sarah, Abrahams (second) wife and Isaacs motherin a single eighty-minute act that flies by with nary a lapse of intensity. An unusual but effective mixture of styles and tones marks the script. Most of the language is stately and somewhat artificial, with scriptural cadences; but it occasionally becomes colloquial, and even descends into comical wordplay. The characters sometimes play straight scenes among one another, sometimes narrate their own thoughts and actions after the fashion of Readers Theater. Though the script treats time and space as fluid, the characters never lose their grounding in specific circumstances. (In my recent review of "On the Verge," I attest to what happens when characters do lose that grounding.) For a show that digs so deeply into such grim subject matterparallels to the Holocaust are obvious throughout the proceedings, and break out explicitly in some places"Isaac" contains a surprising amount of leavening laughter.
At the climax of the plot, there occurs something unexpected, which I wont give away. I will state for the record, however, that I accepted it, although it took me off guard. You might think of it as a move from the literal plane to the symbolic, where ones willingness to commit an act is morally indistinguishable from actually committing it. (Hmm...I may have given it away after all...)
Director Annelise Christ (pronounced with a short I, for you connoisseurs of paradox) obtains exceptional performances from her two young actors, and herself turns in a reasonably good performance as Sarah. As Abraham, Ron Menzel is patriarchal to a degree remarkable for an actor in his twenties. It would be a stony-hearted audience member indeed who could fail to be moved by the fervor Menzel brings to Abrahams dilemma. In the title role, Bard Goodrich is quicksilver and appealing, his character equal parts innocence and knowingness.
The other members of the creative team do good work as well. Id like to single out Sara Wilcox, whose costumes put the characters far enough in the past that we can accept them as non-contemporary figures (cf. Shakespeare in, say, Edwardian dress); but of course we also recognize the significance of their mid-twentieth-century Mittel-European newsreel-footage couture.
Theres not much I can say against this production. I wish Christ had kept all the actors onstage at all times; the handful of exits and entrances, through clumsily-manipulated slits in the cyclorama, call attention to themselves for little reason. And I guess I think the script, which generally tries to ask questions rather than to answer them, suffers nonetheless from a bit of conceptual confusion. Its one thing to indict the God of the Jews for failing to protect his faithful, and the Jews for their naïve trust that their God would protect them. Its quite another thing to blame the faith itself as the root of all the Jews troubles. Could Schulner possibly mean that the Jews should have assimilated completely, thus losing their identity as a people?
But never mind these quibbles. In the Hidden Theatres "Isaac," we have one of those rare shows with real meat on their bones. Unflinching philosophical inquiry plus wrenching emotional forcewhat more can we ask from the theater, except maybe a chorus line?
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