Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Theatre AUM: "The Daughters of Abraham" -- Guest Reviewer: Todd Jeffries

In partnership with ALAT, etc. (A Laboratory for Actor Training, experimental theatre company), Theatre AUM's Neil David Seibel has created an enchanting and provocative evening of theatre. Although billed as playwright, director, and choreographer of "The Daughters of Abraham", Seibel points in his Director's Note to the collaborative efforts of an ensemble of men and women who successfully brought this story to life.

The story is at once timely and timeless, intimately exploring the relationships among a group of women from the three major religious traditions of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. They are an ensemble of mothers, daughters, and sisters, all living in a shared household. As the women struggle to live with each other's differences while finding a common ground, it is this theme of sharing that runs like a golden thread through the narrative of three daughters preparing for their imminent nuptials.

The absence of any pre-show music allows focus on Mike Winkelman's minimalist scenic design. Created from three massive panels of muslin suspended against a black background, the effect is ethereal and makes a truly contemplative place. Chris Rich's warm and magical lighting design lends to the stage a dreamlike quality.

As the show opens, a fiercely talented ensemble of radiant women slowly enters singing a gentle round of "Hallelujah", ushering us into a rich world of reverence and ancient traditions. With their arrival, the stage comes to fiery life. Randal Blades' exquisite costume design provides bold and vivid strokes of color against the black and white canvas of the set design. The set comes alive as the muslin panels become integral to the action of the story we are about to see. Using a fluid choreography, the panels variously morph into wash cloths, laundry, wedding dresses, and walls.

Singing plays a vital role in the storytelling. Memorable instances when dialogue subtly shifts from the pedestrian concerns of daily life into lyrical observations that ultimately blossom into actual songs include "Flowers" and "Food".

Perhaps one of the most beautiful symbolic moments in the play occurs when the three daughters discover they have each received love letters from the same man, Shem. Their initial devastation is potentially compounded by the fact that their father has decided the three of them will marry Shem on the same day. (This is easy enough to go with given the context of an ancient setting.) Their father has given each daughter a gift: a ribbon, frankincense oil, and an empty book. The young women choose to take a situation that might further divide them and instead bring their individual gifts together to create a more perfect whole. They place each of their love letters into the empty book, bind it with the ribbon, and add to it the fragrance of the frankincense which reminds them of their common bridegroom. This act underscores an important lesson we might all benefit from summed up by the response to their common question of whether they can share a husband and a household: "It's not impossible. -- But, it's not easy."

We are prepared to witness the arrival of the wedding day and the daughters departing to meet their bridegroom; but first comes a moment in which a panel of muslin is stretched slab-like to form a dividing wall behind which the entire ensemble is backlit. They begin to speak about the modern day tensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While informative and poignant, the comments have the feel of CNN soundbites, pulling us abruptly out of the narrative that has been playing out for the better part of an hour and twenty minutes. Although this moment serves to tie the ancient, almost dreamilke story to contemporary events, it would have better served as an epilogue and bookend to the play, especially since the commentary culminates with a jubilant reprise of "Hallelujah", the cast backlit in golden light and dancing in a round with the celebratory exhuberance of whirling dervishes.

Of special note: proceeds from each performance of "The Daughters of Abraham" benefit non-profit service organizations in Montgomery, reinforcing a central idea of the play as a whole: Can we share and individually make a difference in our world? -- "It's not impossible. -- But, it's not easy".