Director: Jesse Freedman
Reviewer: Carrie Lee O’Dell
When one thinks of kung fu films, many things come to mind: intricate fight choreography, long-held grudges, battles for honor, whooshing sounds to mark every punch or kick, and, if you’re Meta Phys Ed. artistic director Jesse Freedman, lengthy debates surrounding Jewish religious law. Meta Phys Ed.’s latest production, The Talmud, which meshes a single chapter of the Talmud with elements of kung fu films opened on September 12 at Target Margin Theater’s Sunset Park space, The Doxee Theater.
The Talmud stages a particularly violent tale from Jewish history—the siege of Rome in 70 C.E. and the resultant destruction of the Temple—framed by debates about interpretation of Jewish law. The story of the siege starts with the invasion of Nero Caesar’s forces. When the city is surrounded, the wealthiest men of Jerusalem pledge to sustain the people, offering grain, wine, salt, oil, and wood. Factions of zealots push for battle with the Romans and burn the stores of provisions. As a result, many people starved. This is followed by the destruction of the Temple, some necromancy, brain eating gnats, and threats of punishment with boiling excrement. The text is taken directly from English translations of the Talmud, but is staged with kung fu-inspired movement. It is performed by Lucie Allouche, Abrielle Kuo, Eli M. Schoenfeld, and Jae Woo. Lu Liu provides live accompaniment on the pipa (a Chinese lute-like stringed instrument).
Conceptually, there is a lot to like about this production. The idea is innovative. The cast is talented. Production elements— including scenic design by Kyu Shin, costumes by Karen Boyer, and video by Gil Sperling—do a fine job of evoking a Far East aesthetic without veering into stereotype. Sound by Avi Amon and Eamon Goodman is strong, as is original music Amon composed for the show. Somehow, though, it feels flat. The movement is kung fu inspired, but doesn’t feel much like actual martial arts; it’s more measured in a way that feels more like dance than fighting. The inclusion of the source text’s debates surrounding Jewish law can be challenging for those without a familiarity with the style of the rhetoric.
In a post-show discussion on September 22, director Jesse Freedman talked about his inspiration for this project, which included specific gestures used in debate both by Tibetan monks and by rabbinic scholars. This shed considerable light on staging choices for this production, but most viewers won’t have the opportunity to listen to the cast and crew discuss the development of the play with an audience that contains more than a few Talmudic scholars. That said, folks who have some familiarity with the source text will likely enjoy the way that the production marries gesture and word.
Runs until 28 September 2019 | Photo Credit: Jenny Sharp