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The Disputation

If I am forced to speak, it will do no good not to say something memorable. -- Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman

Theodore Bikel
Theodore Bikel
Like Arena Stage, Theater J stirs up controversial religious discussion with it's season opener of Hyam Maccoby's The Disputation. Set in 1263, the story peeks into the inner politics of a famed disputation between Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman and Dominican Brother Pablo Christiani. The disputation was remarkable because James I, the king of Aragon (a portion of what is now Spain) allowed the Jewish rabbi to speak freely and with impunity (something that had never before happened prior to this time period).

During the Middle Ages, disputations were formal debates utilized in both religious and scientific discussions. Unfortunately, they also often ended in violence for those who did not tow the official party line. Hence, Jews were demanded to defend their religious practices before Christian tribunals and audiences, while not being permitted to say anything that could be construed as blasphemous, heretic, or an attack on Christianity. Rather a hard position to debate from if you are trying to explain why you don't believe Jesus was the divine son of god but are unable to state that you don't believe Jesus was the divine son of god.

Director Nick Olcott has created a fresh, irreverent production that utilizes humor and drama as it looks at the political realities of medieval court life and of the precarious situation faced by a group of people for practicing their religious beliefs. As so often with historical plays, one doesn't have to stretch the imagination to see how the same themes and situations are currently playing out in our own world. While we may not have disputations, we do have debates about evolution vs. creationism, the reality or non-reality of global warming, gay marriage's supposed devaluation of heterosexual unions, and the United States' newest crusade to bring freedom to the Iraqi people by invading their nation and setting up a form of government for them.

Daniel Ettinger's set is a small, tight, Moorish-style design with secret passages and an air of claustrophobia about it. It towers in height, but the actual performance space is not huge. Thus it gives a sense of royal affairs being over heard and intrigue lurking about its corners. Colin Bills lighting is well done, tending to highlight individual speakers. Ryan Rumery's sound design with whispered audience reactions and Moroccan-style music creates a wonderful aural atmosphere for the piece. Kathleen Geldard's costumes are period specific and give a rich luxuriousness to the royals ad a peasant poverty to the common folk.

The cast reads like a who's who of Washington thespians. Andrew Long portrays Brother Raymond, a Dominican friar and advisor to King James who is trying to avoid violence against the Jews but who can not tolerate actual tolerance towards their religion. Edward Gero's Jewish-to-Christian convert Brother Pablo is the picture of the tortured soul who turns his anger not on the Christians who killed his parents but upon his own people for providing him a spiritual practice that does not comfort him during his times of despair. This is a man who is looking or his own hammer and nails because he has a real desire to find his own cross to climb up on.

John Lescault's King James is a cynical and humorous ruler who has an inner penchant for letting bygones be bygones -- unless they get in his way or disobey his rule. Somewhat deluded in his own absolute power, he realizes that he is nearing the end of his ride and wants to make sure he is going to get into paradise when he finally reaches his expiration date. He just doesn't want to have to give up any of his vices in this lifetime to enjoy eternal life in the next. Thus he is tortured about his extramarital affair with Consuelo, a young Moorish girl. His wife Queen Yolanda of Hungary (played with glee by Naomi Jacobson), is a devout Catholic who loves a good stake burning or other torture to get her point across.

Tymberlee Chanel's Consuelo is the most insightful Christian in the play. She realizes that sine the Moors have been killed or subjugated that without the Jews the Christians would have no one to feel superior to, thus the "Jewish problem" is actually a "Christian necessity."

Alconstanti is played with self-centered importance by Field Blauvelt. His Jewish advisor to the king is looking out for the Jewish interest while also seeking his own power hold in both the kingdom and with the Jewish people. It's a nice example of how someone can do good works that actually serve himself as much as the people he is assisting. Spurning Alconstanti's romantic advances is Rabbi Nachman's daughter Judith, played with a touch of earnest devotion to her father by Rahaleh Nassri.

And as the Jewish religious scholar required to defend his faith, Theodore Bikel presents a impassioned performance as Reb Moses. Mr. Bikel's powerful line delivery and precise intonation are a pleasure to listen to; his vocal projection fills the entire auditorium as he fills the stage with his physical presence. You realize you are watching a master craftsman at work and it is a joy to be a participant.

While its hard -- for both Jews and Christians -- to hear the words being spoken on stage this is a production that truly is meant for everyone. It's thought provoking, stirring and well done.

The Disputation
by Hyam Maccoby
Directed by Nick Olcott
with Theodore Bikel, Edward Gero, Naomi Jacobson, John Lescault, Andrew Long, Field Blauvelt, Tymberlee Chanel, Rahaleh Nassri, Matthew Gottlieb, John-Michael MacDonald
Set Design: Daniel Ettinger
Lighting Design: Colin K. Bills
Costume Design: Kathleen Geldard
Sound Design: Ryan Rumery
Properties: Michelle Elwyn
Running Time: 2 hours with 1 intermission
A production of Theater J
Washington DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th Street NW, Washington DC
Telephone: Tickets 1-800-494-8497, Info 202-777-3229
WED - THUR @7:30, SAT @8, SUN @3 and 7:30; $32-$45
Opening 08/31/05, closing 10/02/05
Reviewed by Rich See based on 09/15/05 performance
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