If you’ve ever worn tzitzit, you know that if you stand still, the fringes stay more or less flat against your body, but as soon as you start to move, they splay out in all directions. The same might be said of the dozens of plays at this year’s Fringe Festival, which are as multifarious, unpredictable and uninhibited as ever. Take three plays by Jewish playwrights that are appearing at the Fringe, each of which has some connection to the themes of politics and power: Gary Morgenstein’s “Right on Target” is a satire about the crumbling marriage between a black conservative commentator and his liberal Jewish wife; Katya Lidsky’s “I’m Sorry” is an autobiographical account of a young woman’s journey to becoming an activist for animal rights, and Bronwen Mullin’s “Chalom: A Dream Opera” is a frank look at the sexual politics between a man and his sister in the male-dominated world of the yeshiva. Wildly different, the three plays nevertheless testify to the ongoing importance of the Fringe as an outlet for new Jewish plays.
Morgenstein’s prophetic first play, “Ponzi Man,” ran at the Fringe in 2005, three years before the Madoff scandal broke. His most recent play, last year’s “Mad Mel and the Marradians,” focused on a writer who gets in hot water with aliens from outer space. His latest, “Right on Target,” directed by Noemi de la Puente, was loosely inspired by Juan Williams, the African-American pundit who was fired from National Public Radio in 2010 for expressing his fears of Muslims on Fox News.
In “Right on Target,” Benjy Harrison (Robert McKay), the quasi Williams character claims that he lost his job as a talk show host because of liberal bias in the media, personified by a PBS executive named Susan Nagel (Jane Dashow). Meanwhile, Nagel is having a fling with Harrison’s wife, Karen (Maggie Wagner), whose parents had owned a Jewish deli in the college town of Madison, Wis. — a deli that was boycotted when it displayed an Israeli flag. As Harrison starts an affair of his own, with conservative blogger Julie Chin (Janet Kim), he also copes with Dr. Fareed Morrar (Simcha Borenstein), a Syrian refugee dentist who was tortured in his native country and who cannot understand why Americans spend so much time attacking each other over seemingly minor political differences.
Reminiscent of the relationship between James Carville and Mary Matalin, “Right on Target” is, in the words of the playwright, a “bipartisan romantic comedy.” Morgenstein told The Jewish Week that conservatives get a bum rap in the media; they are “almost always portrayed,” he said, “as zealots, evil capitalists, and red-necked bigots.” Liberal Jews, he said, “don’t want to accept that anti-Semitism is largely rooted on the left, and often comes from liberal intelligentsia.” Yet while the play satirizes both conservatives and liberals, Morgenstein pointed out that the play is being presented in the West Village, a neighborhood that he called the “heart of New York liberalism.” He said that he hopes that audiences at the Cherry Lane Theatre “won’t think that I’m just making fun of conservatives. I’m making fun of everyone. Everyone should just chill.”
The personal meshes with the political in a very different way in Katya Lidsky’s “I’m Sorry,” subtitled “How an Apologist Became an Activist.” In the one-woman show, directed by Gilles Chiasson at The White Box at 440 Studios in the East Village, Lidsky plays sixteen characters, including a number of four-legged ones, as she recounts her story of growing from a bulimic teenager with a lack of self-image to a confident, healthy and positive adult.
Lidsky grew up in Laredo, Tex., as the descendant of Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe to Cuba. She majored in theater and journalism at NYU and then went on to receive a master’s degree in education from Harvard. After first working with at-risk children, Lidsky gravitated to working with animals. Now living in Los Angeles, she has appeared on the children’s television show, A.N.T. Farm, and been featured on the Kathy Griffin show, “My Life on the D List.” In her spare time, she works for adoptapet.com, which is similar to an Internet dating service; it matches shelter animals with prospective owners.
“I want to raise awareness, consciousness and compassion about animals, who are also created by Hashem and are part of the deal,” she told The Jewish Week. Lidsky, who is a vegan, is acutely aware of the pain caused to animals in our society through inhumane slaughtering methods and the use of animals to test both medicines and cosmetics. “It can be hard to reconcile our passions and causes with real life,” she said. “I don’t tell people what to eat or what to do. I just want people to be thankful and mindful.” Nevertheless, she added, “there’s an overlap for me between being Jewish and being a compassionate person — compassion is part of my Jewish DNA.”
Finally, Bronwen Mullin’s “Chalom: A Dream Opera” is an ambitious story of forbidden love in the world of the yeshiva. Directed by Jesse Freedman, the opera is based on two lines in the Babylonian Talmud that are found in close proximity: “One who wraps tefillin in a dream should expect Greatness,” and “One who has sex with his sister in a dream should expect Wisdom.” Mullin combined these two lines, along with other biblical and liturgical verses, to create what she calls a “musical midrash” that incorporates both song and dance. The show runs at the New School for Drama Theatre in the West Village.
Mullin, who is entering her second year of the rabbinical program at the Jewish Theological Seminary, grew up in a secular family. But as she became more involved in Judaism, she secured an arts fellowship to Drisha, where she studied Talmud and was charged to create a work of art in response. In a key scene in her opera, Brother (Jordan Ungerer) is laying tefillin and is interrupted by Sister (Eliana Kisnner), who takes over the chanting of the blessings in order to demonstrate her desire for superiority over him.
In grappling with his ambivalent feelings toward Sister, Brother learns about what Mullin calls the “deep connection between the spiritual and the sexual.” Mullin suggested that the act of laying tefillin on the arm changes the blood pressure, creating a physiological reaction. Furthermore, the physicality of the wrapping of the leather straps, which can be interpreted as a binding of the worshipper to God, take on erotic connotations in her opera. Adding to the physical aspect of the piece is the presence of modern dancers, who portray the other students in the yeshiva as well as the personification of Wisdom. Music is provided by Mullin, on piano, and John Schwartz, on cello.
“Making art from Jewish texts is an act of commentary, scholarship and Jewish engagement,” Mullin noted. She decided to join the rabbinate in order to continue to do such work on a large scale. She praised Burton Visotzky, who is one of her teachers at JTS, for showing her that even medieval rabbis would “make creative choices by replacing a letter and changing the meaning of a word — not to force their own artistic identity on the text, but to highlight the deepest, most provocative and gut-wrenching aspects of it.” After all, Mullin said, “Torah is truth — it has to grab you by the jugular.” She sees herself as very much following the famous advice of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who urged his followers to “build your life as if it were a work of art.”
The Sixteenth Annual Fringe Festival runs Aug. 10-26 at various locations in downtown Manhattan. Plays run on an irregular schedule. For tickets, $15 ($18 at the door), call TicketWeb at (866) 468-7619 or visit www.fringenyc.org.