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“Rumi: Love, Madness & Ecstasy”

Screen Shot 2014-02-12 at 9.16.20 PM“There is an animal called an ushghur, a porcupine
If you hit it with a stick, it extends its quills and gets bigger.
The soul is a porcupine,
made strong by stick-beating.”

This past weekend I saw “Rumi: Love, Madness, and Ecstasy,” a staged reading written by Sheri Winkelmann and directed by Helen Young, presented by Silk Road Rising Theatre. Based on the playwright’s own experience with domestic violence, the play follows the character, Sadia, an independent, open young woman who unexpectedly falls in love with a Tibetan doctor while volunteering in India. Setting aside her practical, modern sensibilities, she agrees to marry Dorjee when he moves his practice to the U.S. After a brief honeymoon period, Dorjee reveals a disturbing jealous streak and a capacity for sudden mood swings. Meanwhile, Sadia does her best to believe in him, attributing his split personality to culture shock while experiencing her own version in the form of isolation from her single, female friends and growing discomfort inside her own home. When the violence reaches a breaking point, the poetry of the famous Persian writer and Sufi mystic, Rumi gives Sadia the courage and spiritual clarity to get out.

The language of Rumi is woven into the play from the beginning — from Sadia’s initial, exuberant feelings toward Dorjee to her eventual escape. It’s a form of punctuation, sometimes initiatied by “Old Sadia,” a sort of spiritually evolved, omniscient narrator version of young Sadia, played by Amira Sabbagh, sometimes chanted by the ensemble as a form of transition music between scenes. It infuses the script with a strong musical energy, a palpable beat that brings Sadia’s spiritual journey to life while illustrating the essential nature of all human suffering, whatever the context. Lines from the poem, “Checkmate” like

“The soul is a newly skinned hide, bloody and gross.
Work on it with manual discipline,
and the bitter tanning acid of grief,
and you’ll become lovely, and very strong.”

and

“Those that make you return, for whatever reason, to God’s solitude, be grateful to them.
Worry about the others, who give you
delicious comforts that keep you from prayer.
Friends are enemies sometimes,
and enemies friends.”

are especially memorable, chanted near the end when Sadia attempts to reconcile her circumstances with her belief in God, and somehow make sense of her suffering.

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 7.55.36 AMI also appreciated the play’s attention to what are, perhaps, more puzzling, ambiguous factors in a domestic abuse situation, such as Sadia’s status as a highly educated, independent minded woman who made a bad judgment call. There is a striking line when Sadia says, “Everything in my culture tells me I should blame myself, but I won’t.” It had me wondering, is this where her education comes into play? If education and financial independence don’t necessarily insulate women from situations of domestic abuse, do they allow women to recover with their psyches more intact, with a greater degree of emotional clarity? This question was addressed during the post-show discussion when Ms. Winkelmann commented on the heightened secrecy surrounding affluent, educated women in abusive relationships, noting an increase in the number of personal acquaintances who have recently shared their stories with her. As for the redemptive power of education, the seed for this project was the playwright’s attraction to a book of Rumi poems in a Barnes and Noble, so her story certainly speaks to the way in which reading and writing allow us to explore and expose our own seemingly shameful experiences and pay them forward, facilitating the healing of others.

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 7.22.13 AMAnother aspect that Ms. Winkelmann’s script exposes in detail is the intense, predictable pattern of the abuse itself. There are several scenes in which we feel a tide turning, the couple slipping down a familiar rabbit hole of escalating insecurity and increasingly inadequate responses until the fight blows over. Then it happens again, like clockwork. This is powerful, if painful, to watch, exposing the cyclical patterns without trying to explain them. I can only imagine that survivors of abuse would find it somehow validating, as if to say, this is what it is, this is what it looks like, over and over again — and despite the insanity, it is real, recognizable, and not the victim’s fault.

A third and final point of discussion is the depiction of Sadia’s friends, and the role they play in perpetuating her feelings of shame and alienation. This tension is introduced early on, beginning with their skepticism toward Sadia’s decision to get married, as if acting boldly based on faith is an inherently sketchy choice to make. As the marriage deteriorates, they are gradually turned off by Sadia’s resolve to make it work, and eventually disassociate themselves. Are they horrible friends, or just limited ones? If they hadn’t deserted their friend in the middle of her desperation, forcing her to “return to God’s solitude,” would she have eventually decided to leave? What is the role of women in perpetuating a culture of shame? Can ordinary women help empower victims simply by withholding judgment?

Screen Shot 2014-02-12 at 9.22.32 PMIntense, serious questions, perhaps, but interesting and provocative ones, ones that can hardly be dismissed. And it’s not all serious — Sadia’s friends, played by Suzanne Sole and Michelle Weissgerber, provide frequent, welcome comic relief, and the Rumi lines are like little gems, sparkling turns of phrase — they get lodged in your brain, resurfacing for a while after. “Rumi: Love, Madness, and Ecstasy” gives us a different, deeper, more profound kind of love to think about for Valentine’s Day: one the one hand, the people or experiences that break us, transforming us into something better and wiser; and on the other hand, the “beloved,” or God, who pulls us through everything, far better stated in the first stanza of “Checkmate”:

“Borrow the beloved’s eyes.
Look through them and you’ll see the beloved’s face
everywhere. No tiredness, no jaded boredom.
‘I shall be your eye and your hand and your loving.
Let that happen, and things
you have hated will become helpers.”

[Photo credits: “The Heart,” petalouda62’s photostream, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, “The Reed Flute Sings in Silence,” deborahaddington.com, “Molana.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, “Which Sheds Its Rays Upon a Frozen Heart,” Poetry, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

Scene and Heard: Midrashing Saint Paul at Silk Road Rising

Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 7.43.39 AMMidrash: a method of interpreting biblical stories that goes beyond simple distillation of religious, legal, or moral teachings. It fills in the gaps left in the biblical narrative regarding events and personalities that are only hinted at.

In November, I had the opportunity to see Paulus, a world premiere by Chicago’s Silk Road Rising theatre. The play explores the last few years of Saint Paul’s life, as well as the historic drama between ancient Jews, Romans and the earliest Christians. Written in Hebrew by Israeli playwright Motti Lerner, translated into English by Hillel Halkin, and directed by Jimmy McDermott, Paulus embodies what Silk Road Rising is all about: promoting intercultural and interfaith understanding.

The company was founded by playwright Jamil Khoury and arts innovator Malik Gillani as a creative response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, an effort to counter anti-Muslim sentiment with authentic, critical dialogue through theatre. Their project soon expanded to feature perspectives and playwrights across the historic Silk Road, from Japan to Italy. Now over a decade old, the company occupies the basement of The Historic Chicago Temple Building, a neo-Gothic skyscraper housing a Methodist congregation over 175 years old.

The playwright, Motti Lerner, identifies as both atheist and Jewish. He became interested in the Christian figure of Saint Paul because of Paul’s passionate belief in universalism, the belief that a shared faith in God can unite disparate cultures. In an interview with Jamil Khoury, Lerner explains that Paul’s concept of universalism has a unique degree of credibility in a place like the Middle East, where tribalism and nationalism have caused such widespread devastation. With this as a starting point, the play digs deep into related theological ideas, at once cerebral and politically charged. The dialogue almost moves like a debate, immersing the audience in first century questions that feel overwhelmingly familiar.

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The Historic Chicago Temple Building

Set on a thrust stage sparsely furnished with wooden planks, ramps and coarse brown fabric, Act I opens with Paulus’s capture by the Romans, immediately flashing back to his final trip to Judea. Paulus, by Daniel Cantor, is scrutinized from all sides. His bold, idealistic expansion of Jesus’s more literal message, his virtues and excesses as a religious zealot, the implications of his beliefs on the religious establishment — all of these are fundamental, unresolved questions that in some way or another, we grapple with in the 21st century. In many ways, the drama of early Christianity resembles the modern drama of the Middle East, or at least it is shaped by similar forces: colliding religions, histories, and world views, cultural richness tempered by violent power struggles.

Act II opens with a more emotionally accessible scene: we witness the alluring effect of Paulus’s message on Drusilla, the Jewish wife of a Roman procurator, Felix. Designer Dan Stratton uses bright, clear lighting and a piece of teal, backlit fabric to suggest the calm, sunlit beauty of the Mediterranean, a welcome respite from the chaos depicted in Act I, both inside Paulus’s mind and between religious factions. Drusilla greets Paulus by promenading down a ramp in heels and noble attire, curtseying reverently, inviting him to dinner somewhat seductively. At this point, Felix stumbles drunkenly onstage, demanding Paulus’s execution, attributing the deterioration of his marriage to Paulus’s teachings, raving about his wife’s disobedient, disinterested behavior as she listens silently downstage. Drusilla finally intervenes when Felix lunges toward Paulus as if to kill him, justifying her actions in conciliatory terms, saying that it was Paulus who validated their marriage — a mixed union between Roman and Jew — by preaching that religion transcends tribe. She then picks up the theological debate, confronting the Pharisee Hananiah about the rigidity of Jewish marital laws.

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Drusilla’s moving defense of universalism has the adamant, personal tone of many modern-day religious debates. It is one of many moments where the playwright suggests his admiration for Saint Paul, suggesting the virtues of Paul’s expansive, progressive religious view. In the same interview, Lerner states that Paul’s spirituality is eye-opening for Jewish audiences “not only because he was born Jewish and died Jewish, but because his ideas present an important theological and existential option which is as valid today as it as in the first century.” He gives the example of how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might benefit from Paul’s radically open, pluralistic stance.

For Christian audiences, the story of Paul is less revelatory. His emphasis on heartfelt faith over adherence to specific commandments is built into Christianity, as is a secondary cast of corrupt Pharisees. However, the play also challenges this perspective, taking a scalpel to the oft-repeated, bluntly shaped narrative of the Temple Police and illuminating the humanness of their dilemma. Dramatizing a familiar story shows how Paulus’s preachings posed a tangible threat to the survival of Judaism, and how the Pharisees simply fulfilled the expectations of any religious establishment, fearful of change, trying to survive.

The fear of the Pharisees is made palpable by the character Hananiah, a former ally of Paulus, whose slow-building panic is skillfully depicted by actor Bill McGough. At first, he is exhausted by Paulus’s restless ways, wearily reprimanding him, saying that he loves him like a brother, much to his own annoyance. When Paulus is tried before the Pharisees — actors shrouded in cloth on either side of the stage, beating drums and sighing into microphones to suggest the roar of the crowd — Paulus manages to win, perhaps with his old friend’s help. But Paulus’s relentless preaching reveals the strength of his will, leading Hananiah to rebut him in an increasingly shrill, panicky voice: “But what will happen to our people without the commandments?” In the end, it is Hananiah who procures his arrest, wincing and shielding his eyes when Paulus’s Jewish servant Trophimos becomes collateral damage.

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 2.31.45 PMThen there is the battle within Paulus himself. His unresolved questions are explored through conversations with the resurrected Jesus and an imaginary Nero, the Roman emperor. Jesus is played by Torrey Hanson as a concerned, restrained observer who comes and goes at pivotal moments. He mostly chastises Paulus for devaluing the Jewish commandments in his impatience to spread the gospel, countering Paulus’s zeal with cool, reasoned theological arguments. It catches your attention, watching Jesus pause and witness the liberalization of his own message, and on a different note, you wonder why he is wearing sunglasses — do the sunglasses cast Paulus out of his field of vision, or are they meant to more generally assert Jesus’s elevated, divine status? Meanwhile, Glenn Stanton as Nero wanders blithely in and out of Paulus’s head at vulnerable moments, strumming a ukelele and singing catchy, ironic tunes like “it’s no easy job to be God.”

Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 8.21.54 AMAs a piece of theatre, I found Paulus to be somewhat stilted, although the actors gave convincing, at times moving performances, and the music and sound effects were used cleverly in an intimate space (go Chicago storefront theatre). It’s easy to label the cerebral nature of Paulus a flaw, but perhaps it is a stylistic and cultural difference that risks getting lost in translation. Lerner’s framework for Paulus is the Hebrew spiritual practice of midrash: meditating on scripture by entering into it and filling in unspoken perspectives. To fully appreciate this play, one has to appreciate that the vision of the playwright extends beyond theatre, as does the mission of Silk Road Rising. Both the play and its theatrical home affirm theatre’s central role in the presentation of ideas, a call for unity and universalism that I’m pretty sure Saint Paul would identify with.

[Photos: “Gijs Van Vaerenbergh – Reading Between the Lines Church 03.jpg,” Forgemind Webuse 0008, CC BY 2.0, “Chicago Temple Building, Chicago,” Antoine Tavenaux, CC BY 3.0, “Mosque and Church,” Jonathan Gill’s photostream, CC BY-NC 2.0, “Saint-Paul,” Antiquité Tardive’s photostream, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, “Empty Stage,” Max Wolfe’s photostream, CC BY 2.0]

INSPIRED FOLLIES


IMG_1256

TART
1: agreeably sharp or acid to the taste

2: marked by a biting, acrimonious, or cutting quality

What is acidic about a buttery shell filled with pasty cream and topped with fruit? I’m willing to tell you. I’m wanting to tell you. I’m waiting to tell you.

I have no idea. It’s mostly butter and sugar. The recipe comes from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. In true Ina Garten style, it is equal parts delicious and do-able. That said, it has a pressed-in, shortbread cookie crust that I found a bit clumsier and more pockmarked than a traditional rolled-in, homemade pie crust. If you are agile with pie crust, you may want to use a traditional crust recipe.

I should also point out how important it is to grip a false bottomed tart pan from the sides, not the middle, before your crust is fully baked — a crisis I narrowly averted while fumbling around in two large, white “Oven Gloves” à la Michael Jackson.

A third and final word of caution — when digging a serrated knife through your objet d’art, so as to snap off pieces of crust and trail squirts of custard, and maybe send a few berries rolling down the counter to one of the members of a book club as they grasp to articulate the merits of a particular character, it’s best to enter spiritedly into the debate, feigning distracted absorption in their many perspectives as you slyly pass them your dismembered, sagging pieces of tart. I recommend NOT dangling your custard dotted serrated knife near their faces as you lunge for a paper towel and then proceed to smear your countertop with a thin layer of fat.

In these instances a home cook may feel the need to justify her folly in crafting such a pretty dessert, only to butcher it and render it unappetizing before serving. Once again, a line from Pygmalion comes to mind. I saw a production at Theatre Wit this weekend:

“What is life but a series of inspired follies? The difficulty is to find them to do. Never lose a chance: it doesn’t come every day.” A good creed for a clumsy cook 🙂

On this note, allow me to promote some theatre, beyond the theatre of me wielding a knife in the kitchen. If you can, see Pygmalion at Theater Wit in Lakeview, jointly produced by Stage Left Theatre and BoHo Theatre. (If you do, check out Cooper’s across the street for some excellent barbecue!)

Screen Shot 2013-11-03 at 3.00.33 PMPygmalion is the story of a phonetics professor, Henry Higgins who makes a bet with fellow linguist Colonel Pickering that he can pass off “guttersnipe” Eliza Doolittle as a duchess, by teaching her to speak like a lady. Pygmalion is the source material for the musical, My Fair Lady, which dramatizes Eliza’s transformation in the wonderfully theatrical and visual way that a musical can. Pygmalion, on the other hand, is chock-full of word play, and subtly shifting power dynamics between the men and the women: Eliza and the professor, Professor Higgins and his mother, Eliza and her father…

What do I like about Pygmalion? There is always the theme of language — rather, the power of language to both create and limit our identity. The same could be said for education, and its powers of creation and limitation: at the end of the play, an exasperated Eliza tells Professor Higgins that she can’t go back to selling flowers on the street; her education has turned her into something new and irreversible, a “lady.”

And yet, being a “lady” at the turn of the twentieth century is in certain ways more limiting than being an uneducated flower girl. After the experiment, Eliza is permanently charged with being an object of refinement and beauty, though she is unmarried and has no real skills, except her recently acquired knowledge of phonetics. Professor Higgins  does not realize the burden he has placed on Eliza by giving her an education that he can’t take back, with no clear place to go. Higgins can’t see how objectifying his project was — he successfully created a lady, but for his own amusement. So what? What happens to her?

Screen Shot 2013-11-03 at 3.05.13 PMThis is an interesting twist on the Greek myth, Pygmalion, about a king who creates a beautiful statue of a woman, falls in love with her, and treats her as if she were real. It’s almost an inversion — as if Professor Higgins is smitten with a precocious, outspoken, low class woman, and gradually makes her more statuesque.

Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James (and one of my favorite novels) also contains this theme, when the precocious and vibrant American, Isabel Archer ends up marrying a European aesthete who treats her like one of many beautiful objects in his art collection.

Aside from the obvious female objectification issues, there is a larger theme at work in these stories, which is: is it inspired folly or just plain folly to cultivate beauty if your spirit isn’t “friendly-like,” as Eliza Doolittle puts it?

More importantly, what are the implications for my tart? I’d say it was well-intended, and beautiful for a second or two. Let’s call it inspired folly. On with the tomfoolery.

[Photos: jeffberryman.com, commons.wikipedia.org, via Creative Commons]
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