Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Off Off Broadway: Besharet

Currently being staged at the 9th Space Theater, Besharet by Chana Porter is an extraordinarily complex work - drawing on Jewish mysticism and folklore in its exploration of some of life’s biggest issues, among them truth, love, honesty, faith, maternity, birth and death, loyalty, gender identification, sexuality and more. It is amazing to realize that this work was written by a young woman in her mid-20s and Ms Porter is to be congratulated for what she has accomplished.

Early in the play, Ruth (Olivia Rorick) explains to Eli (MacLeod Andrews) that -

“Besharet means soul mate. Your other half. Also, it can be used as a verb. Saying that something is besharet means it was meant to be.”

Which, of course, makes it clear right from the start that the play is about what it means to be besharet in both senses of the word - although it is a good deal less obvious exactly who may be besharet to whom, just whose destinies are besharet, or, indeed, even how whatever it is that is besharet will evolve.

As the play begins, Samuel Cohen (William Tatlock Green), an observant Jewish attorney, is good-humoredly bantering with his law partner, Renee Watson (Tia Stivala), when they are interrupted by the arrival of Eli, a new employee sent to them by their employment agency. There is something otherworldly about Eli and his arrival seems to portend something mysterious or even sinister. When Samuel invites him to his home to share Sabbath dinner with his wife, Ruth, and himself, the mystery deepens.

Renee is pregnant by her husband, Tim, but just how enamored of him she might be seems open to question; surely it is not they who are each other’s “besharets.” Ruth is eager to have a baby with Samuel but Samuel seems quite disinclined to accommodate her; while he is solicitous of her health and well-being, he is averse to even touching her intimately, let alone having sex with her, and while he does, at one point, refer to her as “my besharet,” his words do not ring true. Might Renee and Samuel be the true “besharets” or is Eli Ruth’s ‘besharet,’ or Renee’s, or even Samuel’s? Or is the “besharet” of the play’s title someone we may not even have met? The possible permutations and combinations abound but there are no easy answers.

And who, actually, is Eli? He appears to be something more than a man and yet, at the same time, something less. Is he a Golem? Or a Dybbuk? As Ruth explains it -

“A Golem is a creature made out of clay. The Rabbi would make him in a time of great need for the Jews. He would breathe the secret name of God into him, and the Golem would come alive….the Golem doesn’t have a soul. He’s just a vessel—a vessel for other people’s intentions….He was supposed to be a protector, to right wrongs. But at the end of every story it goes horribly wrong—he ends up destroying the town and killing his creator.”

And -

“A Dybbuk is a living person who gets possessed by a spirit—the soul of a dead person.”

Or is Eli an Angel from Heaven, sent by God to help Ruth get the baby she so desires, much like the Angel sent down by God to Sarah and Abraham in Biblical times?

Eventually, it all does get sorted out and we are provided with the answers we are seeking.

I thoroughly enjoyed the play as Ms Porter wrote it: the intricacies of its plot, the development of its characters, the insights into those characters’ psyches, the unexpected turns of events, and the resolutions of its mysteries. But, as in often true of younger writers, Ms Porter may have put more into the play than was necessary or even desirable. The play’s underlying story lines were more than sufficient to sustain her audience’s interest without her gratuitous addition of allusions to the Holocaust, homosexuality, lesbianism, transvestitism, and oral sex. Shortening and tightening up the play by leaving out some of that stuff might have made it even better.

One last small nit-pick: the complexities of the play require an inordinately large number of scenes and, given the limited resources available to Off Off Broadway theatres, those scene changes proved difficult to accomplish smoothly. Had the play been produced on Broadway or even Off Broadway, some sort of rotating stage set might have been designed, allowing for more seamless scene transitions but, as it was, the play’s scene changes required the actors themselves to open and close convertible sofas and move and rearrange furniture, in a rather less than professional and distracting manner.

But those are minor quibbles, at most. The bottom line is that Ms Porter is a very talented writer destined to have a significant impact upon the theatre. I think that’s besharet.

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