Friday , April 19 2024
Kalamandalam John performs the role of 'Pharaoh' in Kathakali-style physical theater.
Kalamandalam John performs the role of 'Pharaoh' in Kathakali-style physical theater. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Theater Review (NYC): Misha Shulman Flips the Story of Exodus, Kathakali-Style, in ‘Pharaoh’

Once in a while a show comes along that makes a critic like me feel that writing a typical review isn’t quite called for. Misha Shulman’s Pharaoh doesn’t demand we ask the typical questions. Was the writing crisp? Real? Poetic? The acting powerful? Touching? Did the sound and lighting help create the world of the writer’s imagination? Did the director impose judicious pacing? These just don’t apply, at least not in the usual ways.

Pharaoh is told through spoken word and stylized movement. It imagines from Pharaoh’s point of view the biblical story of the Hebrew slaves’ exodus from Egypt. But Shulman, the founder and director of the School for Creative Judaism, was inspired to create the show by experiencing a ritualistic play in Kerala, India that took 60 hours over 15 days to show the inner life of the Hindu villain Ravana. Shulman writes that the event “forever changed the way I see that 10-headed demon king…I lost something of my sense of time and space and sunk into a new experience.”

Misha Shulman voices all the parts in 'Pharaoh'
Misha Shulman voices all the parts. Photo by Jonathan Slaff

So, while Pharaoh takes less than an hour and a half – and dwells perhaps overlong on the boils – it doesn’t strive for pacing per se as it recounts the biblical 10 plagues and their ultimate results.

The “action” is split between Shulman’s narration, including voicing all the characters – Pharaoh, his wife and son, a stuttering Moses, and so on – and Dr. Kalamandalam John mime-dancing the action, dressed in a traditional costume of such extravagance it threatens to bowl over the two on-stage musicians when he twirls upstage in the majestic hoop-skirted outfit.

That said, the show’s most impressive aspect is the close coordination of John’s movements with the music and sound effects, produced by sitarist Galen Presson and tabla player and percussionist Tripp Dudley. That speaks well for Michael Posnick’s direction as well as the performers’ skills.

The conceit of Pharaoh’s addressing his story to his dead son, was was killed by the 10th plague, illuminates the pathos of the Egyptian ruler’s situation. Shulman voices this son, and other characters, as Pharaoh recounts what is from his perspective a tragedy, both personally and for his nation. Some of Shulman’s voices are in themselves rather hokey. But again, if one views the show more in the spirit of ritual than of the Western theatrical tradition, what’s important isn’t the creation of a dramatic world in which to lose ourselves through identification, but the spiritual symbolism that takes shape. For that, John’s ritualistic storytelling through Kathakali-style physical theater, magnified by that gigantic costume, is key.

Cross-cultural Imagination

No, there is no local Jewish community in Kerala that enacts a ritual like this every year a week before Passover. That’s from Shulman’s imagination. And that’s the point. What he deals in here is less “theater” than cross-cultural magic.

“They have felt the pain of their enemies,” he writes of his fictional Indian Jews after their Pharaoh-centric ritual. Such empathy isn’t part of the canonical story. By the same token, Shulman inserts into the biblical tale several references to post-biblical history, right up to the present day.

He calls out, however obliquely, the violent proselytizing conducted by the monotheistic religions Judaism spawned; the shabby corruption endemic to priestly authority as it comes to dominate particular cultures; and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and the horrors of the current Israel-Hamas war.

Tripp Dudley (percussion) and Galen Passen (sitar) in 'Pharaoh.'
Tripp Dudley (percussion) and Galen Passen (sitar) in ‘Pharaoh.’ Photo by Jonathan Slaff

The performance I attended took place on Friday night, Shabbat. Before the show, Shulman, who is also a rabbi, lit the Shabbat candles and led the audience in the Sabbath prayers. While these rituals emanated a communal warmth, they also felt like pleas for relief from the overlapping nightmares we can’t seem to wake from today. As we watched the show, it wasn’t hard to feel for Pharaoh and the Egyptians as the plagues descended upon them, each announced by the sound of the shofar. How many are the plagues we are enduring today! The Book of Exodus even seems to prefigure some, notably those related to the climate. (Hail and fire, pestilence, locusts…)

And that’s my atypical review of this atypical show. Pharaoh is at Theater for the New City through March 31. Tickets are available online.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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