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Beate Hein Bennett

EXODUS or the Quest for Freedom

March 15 to 31, 2024
Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. (at E.10th Str.)
Presented by Theater for the New City
Thurs. through Sat. @ 8 PM, Sun. @ 3PM
(No performance Friday, March 22)
Tickets $ 18, gen. admission
Box Off: 212-254-1109, www.theaterforthenewcity.net
Running time: 75 min. (no intermission)
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett, March 16, 2024

Kalamandalam John performs the Pharaoh in Kathakali style physical theater. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Trust Theater for the New City to give space to surprises and small gems of theater art, in this case an amazing fusion of a modern retelling of the Jewish Passover story, the Exodus from Egypt, with Kathakali, the ancient South Indian performance art from the Kerala region. However, the playwright/actor/rabbi Misha Shulman turns the narration on its head and tells the story through Pharaoh and the catastrophe of the Ten Plagues that befall Egypt, culminating in the tragic loss of all first-born sons, including his own son. While the Jews tell this story every year at Passover as a source of remembrance and the joy of liberation from slavery and near extinction, Misha Shulman looks at the other side that experiences the fatal wrath of the Jewish God, the "Adonai" who put the ancient Jews under his protection. In his telling Moses, the eponymous leader of the Jews whom the Pharaoh sees as his "brother," pitches the battle as an agon between two religious systems, Monotheism versus the Egyptian polytheistic system—it is Jahweh over Ra and his kin of gods with Pharaoh seeing himself as the human representative and defender of Ra. Misha Shulman embeds in this narrative a fair question about the justification of monotheism as an inevitable progress in the human history of cultural and political systems but with the consequence of perennial wars among competing religious creeds and peoples. That is the subtext of this remarkable retelling of a familiar ritualized story. By merging the ancient Jewish narrative with the equally ancient mimetic form of Kathakali, a kind of Brechtian "alienation" effect is achieved that surprises, delights, and it makes one think anew about old texts and old assumptions. It is a balancing act between vastly different cultural traditions and our modern questioning of political power and its consequences.

Misha Shulman blows the Shofar. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Director Michael Posnick juxtaposes and choreographs two radically different performance styles for this interplay of two actors. Misha Shulman, dressed in modern black clothes and a black yarmulke, sits or moves mostly on the side of the stage space, narrates and vocalizes different characters, including Moses; he also plays the Shofar to punctuate each segment dedicated to each plague. The Kathakali master Dr. Kalamandalam John is The Pharaoh, adorned in the ornate facial make-up (executed in beautiful detail by Dr. Kalatharangini Mary John) which complements the splendor of the traditional enormously rotund Kathakali costume. The performers are accompanied by Tripp Dudley on percussion and the tabla and Galen Presson who plays the sitar and mandolin. The two musicians react to and propel the movements of the Kathakali actor and the vocal characterizations of the narrator. Watching Dr. John’s subtle, at times humorous, Kathakali lip and eye movements under the huge gilded headgear and his expressive hand gestures with artful specific finger positions, makes for stunning visual theater. The performances are amply supported by the excellent lighting design of Wheeler Moon and associate lighting designer Lauren Lee.

Tripp Dudley on drums and Galen Passen on Sitar. Photo byJonathan Slaff.

The precise artistry of all four players is a heady and profoundly enjoyable aesthetic experience. In the Cabaret Space, the audience sits so close to the performance that not even the smallest gesture is lost, such as the rolling eye or the baring of teeth in a smile, at times with canine prostheses making it a fierce animal sneer—e.g. when Pharaoh turns into an Egyptian (or Jewish?) crocodile. Misha Shulman’s text and character vocalizations are precisely timed to the Kathakali actor’s movements and his varied character metamorphoses, such as when he turns from triumphant Pharaoh into his scolding wife, or dying father, or his questioning and lastly dying son; his is one of the most touching death enactments I have ever seen on stage—it is all in the eye and the breath. Misha Shulman’s present play grew out of his watching an ancient 15-day ritual in Kerala in which the inner life of the great Hindu villain, Ravanna is explored. In a program note he says: "You are about to witness a never before attempted weaving together of the ancient Sanskrit dance-theater form Kathakali, the Old Testament, Egyptian mythology, and 21st century Downtown New York theater."

I encourage the reader of this essay to come and witness this new reading of the Exodus story and its fundamental message of empathy for human suffering in all its shades and manifestations, caused by human cruelty or natural disasters with or without the notion of divine intervention.


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