Monday, December 14, 2009

Jews for Jesus (oh and queers too)

Oy! Here it is the middle of Hanukkah and I'm staggering from one Christmas pageant to the next. How come, with the Jews controlling show biz and all, there isn't a single Hannukah show in this town, I'd like to know? Or wait - maybe that's the plan! What better way to celebrate a holiday than with eight days of presents and no shows? Now it all makes sense!

But back to those Christmas pageants, because actually, there is something like a Jewish Christmas going on at the Central Square Theatre right now, where the double feature Tru Grace: Holiday Memoirs is running through Dec. 27. Half the program - the "Grace" half - is an adaptation (by director Wesley Savick) of Grace Paley's "The Loudest Voice," the famous short story about an immigrant Jewish family's quandary when their little girl is cast as the voice of Jesus in a Christmas pageant (because she has - yes - the loudest voice in her class). Paley (at left) was herself the daughter of Russian Jewish émigrés, and while the story is cast in a bemused, affectionate tone, there are deep ironies echoing through it.

To give you a taste of its mood, here is an excerpt from its climactic pageant:

Miss Glacé yanked the curtain open and there it was, the house -- an old hayloft, where Celia Kornbluh lay in the straw with Cindy Lou, her favorite doll. Ira, Lester, and Meyer moved slowly from the wings toward her, sometimes pointing to a moving star and sometimes ahead to Cindy Lou.

It was a long story and it was a sad story. I carefully pronounced all the words about my lonesome childhood, while little Eddie Braunstein wandered upstage and down with his shepherd's stick, looking for sheep. I brought up lonesomeness again, and not being understood at all except by some women everybody hated . . . I announced twelve friends, and half the boys in the fourth grade gathered around Marty, who stood on an orange crate while my voice harangued. Sorrowful and loud, I declaimed about love and God and Man, but because of the terrible deceit of Abie Stock we came suddenly to the famous moment. Marty, whose remembering tongue I was, waited at the foot of the cross. He stared desperately at the audience. I groaned, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" The soldiers . . . grabbed poor Marty . . . but he wrenched free, turned again to the audience, and spread his arms aloft to show despair and the end. I murmured at the top of my voice, "The rest is silence, but as everyone in this room, in this city -- in this world -- now knows, I shall have life eternal."

Obviously this is "assimilation" of a curiously subversive stripe - indeed, Paley turns so many subtle tricks in this passage, it's enough to make your head spin. The author slides imperceptibly from a burlesque of the cloying Nativity story into ironic historical statement and then on into a proclamation of triumph, as her cluelessly cooperative Jewish kids re-enact their people's persecution via the central myth of their persecutors - and then announce their survival and transcendence of same (somebody page Oberammergau!). "We shall have life eternal," Paley assures her Jewish audience from the loud Jewish mouth of Jesus Christ himself - in the thirties, no less, when European Jews were being rounded up into ghettoes and camps. And the contented American goyim have no idea of the true message of their Christmas pageant.

To be fair, the ironic, multivalent voice of this kind of fiction is a tough thing to transcribe onto the stage, but Wesley Savick's production feels more dumbed-down and deracinated than it had to be. And I confess it kind of pissed me off. True, Savick's script quotes most of Paley's own dialogue, but somehow he still manages to miss her voice entirely, and the loud-but-also-flat delivery of his child actors (the adults aren't all that much better) somehow lacks the vital charm of the declamations of Paley's kids, waving their fake shepherd's crooks at their tin foil stars. Indeed, I get the feeling Savick imagined he was contriving a kind of meta-burlesque here - just as Paley's Jewish kids aped and subverted the Nativity story, so his Cambridge kids would translate Paley's Jewish fable into some kind of awesome multi-cultural message. Sigh - if only. Alas, none of the short story's themes seems to have survived (much less been transformed by) the hearty violence of its translation into a kiddie show, in which the adults have been reduced to kvetching sitcom stereotypes - because, to put it bluntly, "The Loudest Voice" is for grown-ups, not children. And what's left after Savick and his cast have had their way with Paley is merely a broad piece of multi-cultural schmaltz. And I'm afraid I always prefer actual cultures to multi-cultures.

Things go better with the "Tru" half of Tru Grace, which is comprised of Savick's adaptation of Truman Capote's likewise-famous "A Christmas Memory" (the subject of a well-known television adaptation starring Geraldine Page). Even here, however, the trip from page to stage is a bit rocky, but as much of the poetry of Capote's piece can be found right on the surface of his evocative prose, Savick conjures some of the story's true atmosphere simply by quoting it. And he has solid, if not overly subtle, actors in Michael Forden Walker (as the six-year-old Capote) and Debra Wise, who essays his sixty-year-old cousin, Sook (both at left).

Fortunately, Savick refrains from embroidering Capote's slim story (of the slow, secret assembly of some thirty Christmas fruitcakes). But from the start, we sense once again the heavy hand of holiday sentiment pressing down hard on the delicacy that won the material fame in the first place. Walker drops his mimicry of Capote's effeminate vocal pattern early on, and slowly abandons any attempt at conjuring his gnomic aura as well (below, in a 1948 portrait by Irving Penn), settling for the more accessible profile of a David-Sedaris-style knowing Christmas elf. Wise, for her part, manages a slightly generic pathos (like Walker), but doesn't conjure much sense of Sook's lonely, damaged self, nor the faint, sweetly perverse sense of shared "outsider" freedom that suffuses the story.

But then again, this season's parade of holiday pageants seems to have highlighted the difficulty adaptors have in capturing the subtlety of Christmas literature on the stage. It's all to the good, I'd argue in the abstract, that we're seeing stage versions of complex readings of the season from the likes of Dylan Thomas, Grace Paley, and Truman Capote. That's how a diverse theatrical season should operate. Yet I confess I'm getting a case of the holiday blues from many of these shows. A Child's Christmas in Wales put over something of the feeling of Dylan Thomas, but it was troubling to think that its "story arc," should the show become a tradition, might replace the original's lack of one in the public mind. Meanwhile "A Civil War Christmas" was just too weird for words, "A Christmas Memory" proved a mixed bag, and "The Loudest Voice" was a loud misfire. It occurs to me that the "diversity audience" may be unable or unwilling to appreciate the subtlety of its own favored texts. Or perhaps Christmas is a kind of dramatic steamroller that simply flattens anything other than the broadest critique (next up for me is "The Slutcracker"). Suddenly the relative delicacy of TV classics like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is beginning to look awfully good.

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