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Taking on Pharaoh, by Way of India
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Taking on Pharaoh, by Way of India

Misha Shulman’s one-man play, based on the Kudiyatam tradition, attempts to see the ancient ruler anew.

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

Shulman in “Pharaoh.” Director Michael Posnick says, “We had to find our own world between Egypt and India.” 
Photo by Gili Getz
Shulman in “Pharaoh.” Director Michael Posnick says, “We had to find our own world between Egypt and India.” Photo by Gili Getz

The genesis of Rabbi Misha Shulman’s one-person play, “Pharaoh,” was in the small village of Muzhikulam in southern India. In 2008, he traveled there to watch a 15-day play performed in the ancient theater form, Kudiyatam. Villagers and others would gather every evening in the open-air theater to watch the performance for about five hours, sitting a few feet away from the one man on stage.

“It’s riveting. And the slowest thing you’ve ever witnessed,” the writer and actor says in an interview, adding, “It was the best thing I had seen in my life.”

Watching closely and soaking it in deeply, he realized that he wanted to approximate the experience for a Western audience.

The traditional Kudiyatam performer uses facial gestures and sign language unique to the form — which is an Indian national treasure — to dramatize and improvise one act from the Hindu holy book. The actor does some chanting in Sanskrit, accompanied by drummers. Dating back 2,000 years, it is said to be the oldest theater form still in practice.

“That play was about a 10-headed demon God. What was beautiful is that you get to be with this mythical bad guy for so long and fall in love. I needed a bad guy that everyone knew, and I landed on Pharaoh,” Rabbi Shulman says.

For 11 years, he has been working on “Pharaoh,” which will have its world premiere next week at Theater for the New City. This is the world of Egypt and the Exodus — and the lines we recount at the Passover seder — brought to life anew through the eyes and sensibility of Pharaoh. The play is Indian-inspired, Torah-influenced, creatively concocted. Rabbi Shulman workshopped it in Toronto, where he was the artistic director of a theater, and later did a staged reading at the 14th Street Y, where he was a LABA fellow

“I needed to get it right,” he says, about the long birthing period.

He underlines that he is not doing Kudiyatam, that people spend a lifetime learning to do that, but he is influenced by its spirit and style. Just as the Kudiyatam performers present a kind of imaginative midrash, or interpretation, of the classical story, so too does he take the story of Pharaoh in a different direction, with some interpretation going back to the text of the Torah, which is a more complex telling than the Haggadah.

In a recent rehearsal of part of the show at Theater for the New City, Rabbi Shulman walks tall and regal as Pharaoh. It’s a very physical performance as he dances across the stage and speaks with great facial expressiveness, darting his eyes and turning his brows into high arches. He uses sign-language — which might be American Sign Language, gestures borrowed from the Kudiyatam or made-up gestures — as if to emphasize his words. At one moment, he chants some lines to the Torah-trope, in Hebrew and English, and at times he is silent.

Photo by Gili Getz

As in the Kudiyatam tradition, he is led onto the stage, hidden behind a cloth. He is accompanied onstage by John Murchison on the qanun (Middle Eastern string instrument) and Tripp Dudley on the drums.

“The music builds on the Indian influences, with tabla as the center piece, and reflects the other cultural influences on the play: Egyptian, Jewish, Middle Eastern, Western with the qanun and the other percussion instruments,” Shulman explains. “We have fun with these musicians making up sounds that enhance the comedy and drama of the play.”

On stage, Shulman is barefoot and bare-chested, with a shiny skirt-like garment and painted marks on his skin. As director Michael Posnick explains about the costume, “We had to find our own world between Egypt and India.”

The play opens with a broken Pharaoh grieving at the fresh grave of his first-born son. The man who has lost everything then offers his account of events leading up to the final plague set upon the Egyptians, the death of the first-born.

“And so I begin the telling,” he says. As he looks back, he is again the powerful ruler. His Moses — which is Moses as seen through Pharaoh’s eyes — is bent over, wrinkle-faced, dour.

Posnick, who has directed theater and musical productions at Yale Rep, Manhattan Theater Club and the New York Philharmonic and co-produced Frank London’s Cuban-Jewish opera, “Hatuey,” points out that there are several theological discussions in the play. Apart from monotheism, he says, the play puts forward the issue of truth and the ownership of truth and the meaning of freedom.

“What will you do with your freedom?” Pharaoh asks Moses, whom he calls, “My brother.”

Rabbi Shulman says, “If you take Pharaoh and the entire civilization of Egypt and turn it into what we all have so much fun doing at our seders, flattening it out to a caricature of evil and stubbornness, if we can do that to Pharaoh, we can do that to anyone.”

While he doesn’t deny the deep cruelty of Egypt, he also appreciates its beauty and cultural depth. For him, the play is about dimensionalizing the Passover story — and other stories — to let go of a singular perspective. It is ultimately a play about empathy and imagination. He applies a similar multifaceted viewpoint to Israelis and Palestinians and hopes that all can expand their views to include other peoples’ stories.

Rabbi Shulman grew up in Israel, the son of Anglo immigrants; his mother is from Canada and his father, a professor emeritus of Indian studies at Hebrew University, is from Iowa. Their home was filled with Indian culture and Hindu stories, and he says that two of the most important religious experiences of his life were in Hindu temples. In 1999, days after completing his service in the IDF as a commander, doing educational work in South Lebanon, he left for New York and studied acting at Hunter College.

As an actor, he has performed around the world with the Living Theater and other groups. His own plays have often focused on Israel-Palestinian affairs, including “Desert Sunrise” and “Martyrs Street.” This is his sixth play produced at Theater for the New City, a venue for innovative theater for fifty years.

Rabbi Shulman, who was ordained last fall, is the director of the School of Creative Judaism, which he founded in 2009; the school brings together religion, art and activism under the framework of Jewish tradition. Its core is an alternative Hebrew School, where all of the teachers, like Shulman, are artists. SCJ has grown from 20 students to 130. He is now thinking of creating a new “liberal, artsy congregation-like entity” in New York City. The connection between art and religion demonstrated in Kudiyatam is a model for his rabbinate.

Asked about what he’d like audience members to take away, the rabbi says, “I’d like to see them go to their Passover seders with a bigger picture than ‘they tried to kill us, let’s eat.’ I’d like them to try and take these archetypes as something that happens within each one of us rather than something that’s just out there — to embody something about the story.

“At its core,” he says, “’Pharaoh’ answers the call at the heart of our tradition and at the heart of Passover: to ask questions, to seek truth, to continuously work for our own and others’ liberation.” n

“Pharaoh” plays at Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave., from March 15-April 5, with opening night on Saturday, March 21, at 8 p.m.; performances are scheduled for Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m., with an added performance on Wednesday April 1 at 8 p.m. Several evenings include talkbacks with Rabbi Shulman and others. Tickets, $18, are available online at BrownPaperTickets.com or by calling 800-838-3006, or may be purchased in-person at the theater, half an hour prior to performance.

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