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Israeli playwright Naomi Ragen’s bravely and boldly exposes the dark side of an ultra-fundamentalist Jewish sect in Women’s Minyan (Minyan Nashim), which is set in the Me’ah She’arim section of Jerusalem and was inspired by real-life incidents. The longest-running play in history of Israel, Women’s Minyan is now in its fifth year at the Habimah, Israel’s national theater.
Now, thanks to StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance and Theatre Or, Triangle audiences have the opportunity to witness the American premiere of this disturbing drama, which has so far drawn more than 300,000 Israeli theater-goers to the Habimah. The current production of Women’s Minyan, hosted by Duke Performances and the Duke University Department of Theater Studies, will light the fires of righteous indignation in many a heart as it resumes its run Oct. 19-23 and 26-30 in the Reynolds Industries Theater in the Bryan Center on Duke’s West Campus in Durham, NC.
Dramatist Naomi Ragen’s target is not Jewish ultra-fundamentalists in general, but certain of its corrupt leaders, who have abused their authority and misused their power to render women as virtual slaves of their husbands. In the current production of Women’s Minyan, the loud, angry voices of these men (passionately played by Bob Barr, Theaddeus Edwards, Darryl Freedman, Benjamin Holt, John Honeycutt, Robert Kaufman, David Klionsky, Burt Rauch, and Al Singer) are heard — but they are seen only in silhouette — as they vehemently excoriate Chana (Jan Doub Morgan), for leaving her 12 children behind two years ago to escape the clutches of her physically abusive husband. They call Chana all sorts of vile names, and threaten to break her arms and legs if she persists in her attempts to see her children — some of the youngest of whom are played in frilly white dresses, as “ghost children, by Anya Josephs, Carina McDermed, and Emily Zoffer.
The part of Chana is the role of a lifetime for Jan Morgan, and she gives what is arguably the finest performance of her career as this deeply conflicted woman. Once a model wife and mother whom the rabbis enlisted to counsel other women, Chana is now a pariah to the whole community because they have been led to believe the Big Lie that she callously abandoned husband and family to set up housekeeping with another woman!
In a final desperate effort to see her children, whom her mother Frume (Sylvia Z. Dante) and mother-in-law Goldie (Marilee Spell) have hidden from her in defiance of an order from the rabbinical court, Chana suggests that her mother, her sister Gitta-Leah (Barbara Lang), her mother-in-law, her sister-in-law Adina (Sarah Kocz), her daughters Bluma (Kendall Rileigh) and Shaine-Ruth (Meghan Witzke), her nosy neighbors Tovah and Eta (Amy Flynn and Sharlene Thomas), and her dear friend Zehava (Deborah Winstead) sit together righteously as a minyan (court) to hear her story and judge honestly whether she can see her children.
It would be hard to imagine a more hostile tribunal. Mother Frume and sister Gitta-Leah are positively venomous in their condemnation of Chana — recalling embarrassing moments from her childhood to bolster their current condemnation. Mother-in-law Goldie is initially sympathetic to Chana’s plight, but recoils in shock and sides with Goldie and Gitta-Leah when some of the skeletons start to tumble out of the closet of the “saintly” son — a Talmud scholar — whom she still worships with a mother’s devotion. Bluma and Shaine-Ruth resent having to raise their 10 younger brothers and sisters, and they deplore the pernicious effects that the family scandal has had on their marriage prospects. Tovah and Eta also lean toward telling Chana to take a hike, and only Adina and Zehava want to hear Chana’s side of the story.
Sylvia Dante and Marilee Spell are magnificent as Frume and Goldie, Chana’s implacable nemesis and her initially simpatico mother-in-law, respectively. Barbara Lang plays the insufferably snobbish and hopelessly self-centered Gitta-Leah as the Big Sister from Hell; Kendall Rileigh is terrific as the deeply resentful Bluma, whose best prospects for marriage were torpedoed by her mother’s defiance of the ultra-fundamentalist code; and Meghan Witzke is utterly charming as Shaine-Ruth.
Amy Flynn and Sharlene Thomas provide comic relief as a couple of bumbling butt-in-skis; Sarah Kocz gives a heart-tugging performance as poor stuttering Adina; and Deborah Winstead adds a compelling cameo as Zehava, Chana’s friend and business partner who previously fled a similar abusive situation.
Director Joseph Megel superbly orchestrates the awesome dramatic power of this singular script. He gets a high-octane performance from each of the 10 women.
Scenic designer Rob Hamilton provides a brilliantly imaginative set for this courtroom drama; lighting designer Elizabeth Droessler expertly manipulates her instruments to heighten dramatic intensity; and costume designer Traci Meek dresses the 10 women handsomely yet modestly in accordance with the traditions of the ultra-fundamentalist sect to which most of them still belong.
Women’s Minyan is a must-see drama. This stellar American premiere of this galvanizing script by Naomi Ragen will surely lead to other stateside productions.
The StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance and Theatre Or present Women’s Minyan Wednesday-Saturday, Oct. 19-22 and 26-29, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 23 and 30, at 2 p.m. in Reynolds Industries Theater in the Bryan Center on Duke University’s West Campus in Durham, North Carolina. $15-$25 ($5 Duke students with ID), with group rates and other student rates available. 919/684-4444 or http://tickets.duke.edu/. Note: There will be post-performance talkbacks Oct. 29th and 30th, with Dr. Michael Taub, foremost editor of anthologies of Israeli drama in translation. StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance: http://www.streetsigns.org/ [inactive 10/08]. Theatre Or: http://www.theatreor.org/ [inactive 3/06]. Naomi Regan: http://www.naomiragen.com/.
The Washington, DC and Chapel Hill, NC-based StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance and Durham-based Theatre Or will present the American premiere of Women’s Minyan (Minyan Nashim), Israeli playwright Naomi Ragen’s riveting ripped-from-the-headlines drama about religious fundamentalism in a patriarchal society, Oct. 15-30 in the Reynolds Industries Theater in the Bryan Center on Duke University’s West Campus in Durham, NC. Duke Performances and the Duke Department of Theater Studies will host the show.
StreetSigns associate artistic director Joseph Megel will stage Women’s Minyan with many of the same Triangle theater all stars who participated in the stellar staged reading of the play last November during “Voices from the Holy Land: A Festival of Staged Readings of Cutting-Edge Plays,” produced by Theatre Or at six different venues in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area.
“Theatre Or is a member of the Association for Jewish Theatres,” explains festival director and Theatre Or producing director Diane Gilboa, “and two female artistic directors introduced me to [Women’s Minyan] at an annual conference a year ago last May.”
She adds, “I am committed to introducing Israeli plays to our country, because I think they speak to issues with which we Americans are concerned — issues that American playwrights have not addressed. I was drawn to this piece because it gives an intimate look at a religious fundamentalist world that we haven’t seen on stage before; also because it deals with the boundaries between our secular and religious lives; and, foremost, because it’s stunning theater.”
Director Joseph Megel says, “When Diane Gilboa and I were looking for Israeli plays for the Theatre Or reading series last Fall, we read Naomi Ragen’s Women’s Minyan. I thought it was a provocative way of looking at religious fundamentalism and its effects. I was also struck by its amazing popularity in Israel. [It is the] longest-running play in Israel’s history.” (Women’s Minyan is now in its fifth year at the Habimah, Israel’s national theater, where more than 300,000 people have seen it.)
Megel adds, “I like [the play’s] balance between embracing all things spiritual and sacred and looking at the perversity and hypocrisies of fundamentalist extremes. In our world, where religious zealots of all stripes are in a cultural war with the secular [world], the story of Women’s Minyan is both apocalyptic and hopeful. The fanaticism of religious fundamentalism in our world separates us from each other, oppresses us, and diminishes our capacity to love. Women’s Minyan unflinchingly illuminates this, and aches for a deeper, more connected way towards a life of the spirit in our fragmented world.”
Megel says, “Women’s Minyan takes place in the contemporary world of the haredim or ultra-Orthodox Jews. Chana (Jan Doub Morgan), who ran away from the community two years earlier and has since been prevented from returning, is arriving with a Rabbinical Court order to allow her to see her 12 children. The men of the community in power (off-stage characters), however, have decided that she is an outcast and degenerate and have spirited away her children to prevent her from seeing them. They have left a group of women to get rid of her, her two eldest daughters, Bluma (Kendall Rileigh) and Shaine-Ruth (Meghan Witzke), her estranged and alienated mother (Sylvia Dante) and sister (Barbara Lang), [and] her sympathetic mother-in-law (Marilee Spell) and sister-in-law (Sarah Kocz).
“Joined by two nosy neighbors (Sharlene Thomas and Amy Flynn) and Chana’s friend and ally (Deborah Winstead), Chana convinces the 10 women to judge her themselves,” Megel explains, “to determine whether she should be allowed to see her children. (This is allowed by Jewish law.) After much is revealed about all of these women, they must decide Chana’s fate.”
In addition to director Joseph Megel and producer Diane Gilboa, the show’s production team includes set designer Rob Hamilton, lighting designer Elizabeth Droessler, costume designer Traci Meek, props master Tracey Broom, sound designer Nick Graetz, director of men’s chorus Chris Chiron, assistant to the director and head of men’s chorus Al Singer, and stage managers Andy Hayworth and Lormarev Jones.
Joseph Megel says, “There are many challenges in this piece: its size; the amount and depth of story that needs to be told; creating the world of this community which is quite foreign to us; creating the sense of the sacred and spiritual, which is an essential quality of the play (if you will, Jewish magic realism); [and] creating the oppressive male presence. All of these elements are essential to telling the story.”
He adds, “The set needed to evoke both the real world of this Haredi family and be able to transform into the more the ethereal world of the spiritual and sacred. So, there are both realistic and expressive elements. It also had to find a way to make the male voices in the script have a visual presence without putting them on stage.”
Megel says the show’s lighting goes “from a more naturalist look to an expressive one.”
“Costumes are an essential part of this play,” Megel claims. “The women’s dress is totally controlled by male dictates of modesty. The entire first scene of the play is literally a rabbinical diatribe on women’s dress and presentation. We’ve tried to balance the ‘real world’ requirements of women’s dress in this community, with the psychological individuality of each character.”
Joseph Megel says, “We have a chorus of six to nine men (rotating) who become a silhouetted and ongoing presence in the play to remind us of the power and control of the men in the community. ([They include] Bob Barr, Al Singer, Robert Kaufman, John Honeycutt, David Klionsky, Theaddeus Edwards, Darryl Freedman, Burt Rauch, [and] Benjamin Holt.) The memory of Chana’s young children are represented by two characters named ‘ghost girls’ that appear in Chana’s mind and are represented on stage — they are played in rotation by Carina McDermed, Emily Zoffer, and Anya Josephs.”
Diane Gilboa says, “We have beautiful music, an incredible set, a deepened understanding of the relationships among the characters and of the world in which they live. It’s hard to research all this, but the playwright knows the world first-hand and illuminated it for us.”
She adds, “The budget tripled when we were invited to Duke’s Reynolds Industries Theater. Coordinating all the sponsors, scheduling promotional and educational events for the playwright when she was in town, raising funds, [and] finding the right actors took months. Going from a 100-seat venue to a 600-seat venue is a daunting challenge.
“Interestingly enough,” Gilboa points out, “most of the actors are not Jewish, but you wouldn’t know it. The play transcends cultural, gender, and religious boundaries.
“I think the audience will be treated to an important play that they cannot see anywhere else,” Gilboa declares. “This is the English-language premiere as well as the American premiere. Women’s Minyan is unspeakably powerful. It is potentially transforming, and the images and story will linger in your mind long after you see it.”
The StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance and Theatre Or present Women’s Minyan Saturday, Oct. 15, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 16, at 2 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday, Oct. 19-22 and 26-29, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 23 and 30, at 2 p.m. in Reynolds Industries Theater in the Bryan Center on Duke University’s West Campus in Durham, North Carolina. $15-$25 ($5 Duke students with ID), with group rates and other student rates available. 919/684-4444 or http://tickets.duke.edu/. Note: There will be post-performance talkbacks Oct. 29th and 30th, with Dr. Michael Taub, foremost editor of anthologies of Israeli drama in translation. StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance: http://www.streetsigns.org/ [inactive 10/08]. Theatre Or: http://www.theatreor.org/ [inactive 3/06]. Naomi Regan: http://www.naomiragen.com/.