Purim, not Chanukah, a friend pointed out, has become the real Jewish Christmas. There’s a whole bunch of days playing up to that one special day, then a whole bunch of days playing off it after the one special day is over. This new Purim-mania, as we have seen, creeps up to the very gates of the subsequent Passover holiday itself. Next year, who knows?,–it may not completely sputter out until the day after Shavuos.
This year, filling weeks in the spring calendar, we’ve witnessed all kinds of carnivals, parties, panels, study sessions, big cultural megillas of all types and, at Manhattan’s Center for Jewish History, a sporadic run of Samuel J. Bernstein’s musical play “Queen Esther’s Dilemma” strung throughout most of the month of March.
Something in the collective Jewish mind decided that when it comes to the Feast of Lots a whole lot can never be too much, and Bernstein’s show gives at least some clue why, in ways you perhaps would not have entirely expected.
Co-presented by the American Sephardi Federation, “Queen Esther’s Dilemma” is an agreeable outing. In a tight hour and a half, it courses through the familiar tale of romance, racial peril and feminine guts touching the right bases and serving up the proper emotional flavor embedded in the story’s seesaw drama. It’s an appealingly modest endeavor with its own special touches, giving it a distinctive leg up from your kid’s otherwise undeniably fun fourth-grade Hebrew school Purim play.
There’s the music, lyrics and tunes by the author, pleasingly bumping the action along with the help of a less-is-more three piece ensemble. There are the costumes, an attractive mishmash stitched together from God knows how shoestring a budget, that somehow adds up to say convincingly Whatever, BCE ancient Persia. And, of course, there’s the acting, executed by a gratifyingly able cast under David Serero’s breezily attentive direction.
There’s the Esther of Amanda Martinez, gifted with a soprano singing voice that’s both light and affecting in all the right places. There’s Mark Singer’s Mordechai, whose right thinking may mask a self-righteousness that could push tribal loyalty a little too far (more on that coming up).
There’s the Haman of Christopher Romero Wilson, tasked with lending Judaism’s favorite villain some human nuance and making it work with the appropriate note of humor spiked with a little Nathan Lane-ish vibe. And there’s the Ahasuerus of David Serero, piling on one more credit on top of his tags as the play’s director and producer. A stylish mountain of black and gold, Serero shows an admirable ease playing off the monarch’s high-handedness against his enamoredness with his Jewish queen’s beauty and smarts. Serero’s own natural guttural and plummy mutinational accent doesn’t hurt either.
Balancing the more foreboding elements of the tale are the occasional throwaway gags mastered by the irrepressible Serero. We get a quick tutorial, for example, on the difference between a wise man and a wise guy with the aid of the appropriate hatware and a completely gratuitous but laugh-getting play on “Haman” vs. “Hey, man!”.
But giving the show its big difference are its deviations from the cheerleading mainstays of the story, though the playwright doesn’t skimp on the latter. Players pop up with brisk commentaries on the plot holes in the received narrative. But the weight of the work’s revisionism falls on Esther’s desperate plea to cousin and mentor Mordechai to pull back from the additional day of slaughter against their Hamanite enemies.
Bloodlust is not the Jewish way, she argues, though Mordechai is resolute on keeping Jewish swords swinging, summoning ancient injunctions against the vicious tribe of Amalek, the ancestral nationality of Haman according to midrashic tradition. She, of course, loses that debate.
That’s the “Esther’s dilemma” of the title. It also, in turn, gives rise to the dilemma of the playwright himself, looking at urgent but seldom invoked moral questions around a people’s hallowed saga and coming down on the provocative side of asking them. With music.
Directed by: David Serero
At the Center for Jewish History – New York , NY
Reviewed by: Lehman Weichselbaum