Choreographer-actor Yehuda Hyman’s dance-theater piece The Mar Vista is the result of three years’ stage development and, it would appear, a lifetime of experience and reflection. A charming autobiographical account of one family’s history, it glows with the emotions of family dynamics, resounds with humor, and pulses with graceful dance.
A company of six led by Hyman himself tells the story of his mother’s eventful youth in Russia, in Istanbul, and in the U.S.; his parents’ courtship and marriage; and his own childhood. It ends with a middle-aged Hyman closing the circle of his relationship with his beloved mother after her death.
Her life and personality dominate Act I. In a prologue Hyman dramatizes the Jewish symbolism of the five fingers of the hamsa and the ten plagues enumerated during the Passover seder through smoothly expressive modern-dance movement and succinct narration. The narrative then slides from religious tradition into the traditions that arise in an individual family – the legends, the habits, the clashes, and the spoken and too-often unspoken feelings. His mother’s sweet memories of her youth in Istanbul inform her whole subsequent life, symbolized by the metal hamsa (Turkish bath) bowl she brings with her to America – but also by the rosary secreted in a shoebox of old photos and given her long ago by a young priest “with the bluest eyes.”
Her gloriously romantic pas de deux with the priest is one of the evening’s finest passages and illustrates one of the formative moments of his mother’s early life. But real life intrudes. A rabbi sets up Yehuda’s mother with a humble, “not romantic” tailor because her U.S. work visa is about to expire.
The tailor’s literal swoon on first beholding her is just the kind of thing dance can dramatize in a way straight theater can’t. Played by Ron Kagan with equal parts nebbishy charm and gruff depth, Yehuda’s father comes across as a sweet, patient young man, but later a dark and rather sulky presence in young Yehuda’s life.
Amanda Schussel steeps the mother in buzzing romantic energy, her agile movements lending brilliant focus to the show from the moment she first steps on stage. Her performance and Yehuda’s piercing tale-telling build her into a wonderfully memorable character, from youthful romantic exuberance to nonagenarian decrepitude. Another remarkable performance comes from Dwight Richardson Kelly, who takes over the role of Yehuda in the second act and with his tall, pale, and utterly antithetical form magically embodies the swarthy, somewhat overweight Jew. He conveys the wonder of childhood and makes the boy’s wide-eyed initiation into the difficult world of the arts feel brilliantly real.
Ezra Lowrey takes on a few minor dancing roles and plays gentle accompaniment on an acoustic guitar. Ryan Pater turns on the smolder for several roles, dancing the priest with swooping grace, later acting the role of a young policeman whom middle-aged Yehuda encounters in a sweet but somewhat too-long coda: The son, his long-lived mother finally gone to her rest, has journeyed to seek the island she had always spoken of so fondly. It’s a worthy quest: our last sight of her is as an aged, unwashed crone suddenly transformed into an angelic figure of light – one of the production’s most luminous moments.