© 2005 Potomac Stages
Intelligence! Intelligence is everywhere evident in this superbly produced play centered on an intellectual debate more interesting than a courtroom drama. The conflict between Christians and Jews in 13th Century Barcelona provides the setting for a fascinating story based on historical records. The give and take of debate is set amid the swirling currents of power politics in the court of Aragon's James I with his queen, the Pope's representative and even his mistress pushing their own agendas. Nick Olcott directs a fine cast headed by Theodore Bikel who delivers a beautiful, powerful performance that is simply not to be missed by anyone who treasures the power of theater to present both emotion and intellect.
Storyline: In Spain in the year 1263 the King of Aragon hosts a debate between a learned Jewish scholar and a Dominican Friar on the two questions "Has the Messiah come or is yet to come?" and "Is the Messiah a man or a god?" The pressures of court intrigue, the growing power of the Roman Catholic Church and the rise of anti-Semitism throughout Christendom set the stage for a battle of minds and hearts.
The play is by a scholar, not a playwright. The late Dr. Hyam Maccoby produced a lifetime of serious scholarly tomes on the history of Judaism including one, Judaism on Trial: Jewish-Christian Disputations in the Middle Ages, for which he translated the account of a formal disputation on Jewish versus Christian views of the Messiah and the life and nature of Jesus. That account forms the backbone of this play, but the scholar does more than merely recount an ancient debate. Maccoby provides historical and human context through a number of subplots. Since play writing wasn't his principal skill, it is not surprising that not all the subplots play out well, but he gives nice substance to the King, the Queen and the Pope's representative, with only the subplots of the King's mistress and the disputant's daughter's admirer seeming too artificially theatrical. That Maccoby's source is the account written by one of the disputants might lead you to expect a one-sided view of the battle, but Jewish devotion to intellectual rigor in examining important questions is proven in part by the fact that the strengths of the Dominican Friar's arguments are put as clearly as are those of the Rabbi.
For those who remember Theodore Bikel best for his Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, this evening seems almost as if Tevye had got his wish. In Fiddler Tevye sings of all the things he would do if he were a rich man. "The sweetest thing of all," he sings, would be to "discuss the holy books with the learned men seven hours every day." Bikel makes you feel his pleasure at the construction and consideration of a logical argument, and also the Rabbi's painful realization that this disputation is not merely an intellectual exercise. It has real consequences for his people. As he says, he doesn't know which to fear more: losing the argument or winning it. Edward Gero plays his opponent with just as much fervor - what a pair they make! Any production of a debate play turns in part on whether the audience believes that each debater really believes what he is arguing and is trying as hard as he possibly can to prevail. It is to Bikel and Gero's credit that this intellectual struggle is completely believable.
Supporting the cerebral combat are performances and design contributions of note. John Lescault makes a very human monarch. As his queen, Naomi Jacobson communicates more with body posture and a glance than many actresses with long speeches. As good as Andrew Long is in the scenes where his character tries to control events for the Catholic Church, he is even better simply sitting and listening to the debate rage on. His subtle facial expressions say volumes both about the church's stake in the struggle and his own thought process. Everything works together in this production, Daniel Ettingers' lovely set is dramatically lit by Colin K. Bills. The effect is amplified by the sumptuous costumes (Kathleen Geldard gives Jacobson a stunning gown that matches her throne) and even Ryan Rummery's sound design works with the action as sounds are synchronized with the closing of volumes or the pounding of fists. In every aspect, there is one feature - intelligence.
Written by Hyam Maccoby. Directed by Nick Olcott. Design: Daniel Ettinger (set) Kathleen Geldard (costumes) Colin K. Bills (lights) Ryan Rumery (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Delia Taylor (stage manager). Cast: Theodore Bikel, Field Blauvelt, Tymberlee Chanel, Edward Gero, Matthew Gottlieb, Naomi Jacobsen, John Lescault, Andrew Long, John-Michael MacDonald, Rahaleh Nassri.