Theater Review: “Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq” at the Wilma


Kate Czajkowski and Keith J. Conallen. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.

The drama Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq now playing at the Wilma Theater tells the story of one Marine’s return home from war and discovery that his lover is missing.  

The play, written by Paula Vogel and directed by Blanka Zizka, is inspired by Don Juan Comes Back from the War, written in 1936 by Odon von Horvath. It is grounded in the experiences of recent veterans, who often return from Iraq and Afghanistan to the U.S., where most of the population has little direct connection with war.

The play addresses post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as pervasive sexual assault on women in the military, but as these subjects are covered by the media, the play does not shed any new light on them. The surreal quality of the narrative, which jumps in time from colonial Philadelphia to the Iraq war, is more confusing than effective.  

More after the jump.
We learn that Don Juan repeatedly forces himself on the women under his command. At one point, Juan comments on how powerless he feels around women in ordinary life: “Only with sex can I reverse the power,” he says to his unit. “Only then can I feel the rush that I feel with all of you brothers.”  

While this is all potentially interesting material for a character, the Juan character, in a fine performance by Keith Conallen, never comes to life. We never learn why he behaves the way he does, and we are left without any catharsis when we see the character homeless in the winter streets of Philadelphia.  

Writing in 2011 in The Tablet, David Goldman had illuminating things to say about the origins of  Don Juan, in a review of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni:

Don Juan was the invention of Tirso de Molina, a Spanish monk from a family of converted Jews. Concealed in its puppet-theater plot is a Jewish joke: Don Juan exists to prove by construction that a devout Christian can be a sociopath, and by extension, that the Christian world can be ruled by sociopaths. The Enlightenment’s most insidious attack on Catholic faith, then, came not from atheists like Voltaire, but from a Spanish monk with buried Jewish sensibilities.  

Although one would be hard-pressed to find anything remotely Jewish about Vogel’s Don Juan, following Goldman’s logic, the play certainly provides plenty of evidence to support the pervasive sociopathology of daily life in the U.S.  

By far, the best thing about this play is the set design. Set designer Matt Saunders and lighting designer Thom Weaver created a sleek black platform that tilts during the show, intended to destabilize the action.  

But this does not make up for the surprising lack of substance, story or character development in this two-hour (no intermission) show.  

At the Wilma Theater, 265 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, 215-546-7824, through April 20. Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes.

Theater Review: Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters” at the Arden Theatre


Left to right: Sarah Sanford, Mary Tuomanen and Katherine Powell. Photo by Mark Garvin.

The world premiere of a new translation of The Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov, playing at the Arden Theatre until April 20, is a vibrant, well-acted, well-directed production that should not be missed this season.  

Chekhov’s influential story about a family’s unrealized aspirations was translated by Curt Columbus, and is directed by Terrence J. Nolen.

“Chekhov isn’t easy — there’s not a tried and true method to make his work speak to modern audiences,” stated Nolen, Arden’s producing artistic director. “But no other playwright speaks more eloquently to the essence of the human condition, and that challenge is irresistible to me as a director.”  

Through research, workshops, readings, and travel, the play is the culmination of a two-year exploration of the master storyteller’s work that took the theater company from Moscow to Providence, Rhode Island to Philadelphia.

More after the jump.

“The Three Sisters” was originally performed at the Moscow Theatre in 1901. It is a classic four-act drama that examines the lives of the three Prozorov sisters and their brother Andrei, who have lived for 11 years in a small provincial town, where their late father had commanded a brigade. Unsuited for provincial life, the sisters long to return to Moscow, their childhood home and idealized haven.  

Although there is not a single Jew among these characters, there is something profoundly heimish in Chekhov’s play, as Diane Samuels wrote in the Jewish Quarterly:

No Jew would have inhabited this social milieu. And yet the sense of community, the emotional highs and lows, the ill-tempered humor, the corny asides, the affection, the melodrama, the poignancy, the hope, the despair, all — as actress Tracy-Ann Oberman insightfully noted when she first mentioned to me that she hoped to find a writer ready to take up the challenge of writing a Jewish version of the play — smack of something very Jewish indeed. Maybe it is the Russian background.

Still, a leap was required to find a way of extrapolating the Jewishness out of Chekhov.

This moving production’s most innovative turn takes place in the first act. We are watching a play within a play, as the actors seem to be having a dress rehearsal for a play, which is being videotaped as we watch it. Refreshingly disconcerting, the clever technique works, and by the time we get to the second act we are in the play itself, but the intimations of the video and the sense of life being a dress rehearsal linger.  

All three “sisters” are outstanding in their respective roles: Katherine Powell as Masha, the sardonic, restless middle sister; Sarah Sanford as Olga, the oldest sister; and Mary Tuomanen as Irina, the youngest sister.  

Lt. Colonel Alexander Vershinin, portrayed by Ian Merrill Peakes, is the play’s philosopher:

There will come a time when everybody will know why, for what purpose, there is all this suffering, and there will be no more mysteries. But now we must live… we must work, just work!

Fine. Since the tea is not forthcoming, let’s have a philosophical conversation.  

Chekhov might not have been Jewish but he speaks to the human condition in this sad, poignant play that embraces all of life: from the boredom of marriage to the ravages of war, from the hopes of youth to the regrets of the middle age. Near the end of the play, Vershinin reflects on that:  

In two or three hundred years life on earth will be unimaginably beautiful, amazing, astonishing. Man has need of that life and if it doesn’t yet exist, he must sense it, wait for it and dream of it, prepare to receive it, and to achieve that he must see and know more than our grandfathers and fathers saw or knew.  


The full cast of “Three Sisters.” Photo by Mark Garvin.

In “The Three Sisters,” Chekhov has written a masterwork that doesn’t reduce life to easy platitudes or resolutions, but captures the fleeting nature of life in four acts that the Arden’s production staff honors in its bold new production.

Single ticket prices are between $36 and $48, with discounts available for seniors, students, military and educators. Groups of 15 or more enjoy significant discounts. Main stage subscriptions are on sale for between $84 and $135.

For tickets, call the Arden’s box office at 215-922-1122, order online, or visit the box office at 40 N. 2nd Street in Old City, Philadelphia.

Post-show discussions will be held following the performances on March 30 at 2 p.m., April 3 at 8 p.m., April 9 at 6:30 p.m., April 13 at 2 p.m., and April 16 at 6:30 p.m.

Almost 80, and Just as Feminist: Gloria Steinem Interview


Gloria Steinem at “This Is What 80 Looks Like.” Photo: Peter Handler.

— by Lisa Grunberger

I had the opportunity to interview feminist activist and writer Gloria Steinem, who co-founded Ms. Magazine.

Steinem has been one of the most prominent spokeswomen for the women’s liberation movement and has continued her activism until today. In 2005, she co-founded the Women’s Media Center, which advocates to expand women’s voices in the media, with feminist activist Robin Morgan and actress Jane Fonda.  

Last week Steinem was in Philadelphia, at The Shalom Center in Congregation Mishkan Shalom, to speak with Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who founded the Center, about social justice, equality and peace, at an event called “This Is What 80 Looks Like.”  

Full interview after the jump.
Q: Many feminists have rejected religion as hopelessly patriarchal. Others have found ways to live feminist lives as radical Christians, and feminist Jews and Muslims. Have you ever felt called to explore a Jewish text, or study, or Torah, or anything like that?

A: No, to be honest. The closest that I have come to it over time is that I have participated, for 25 years or more, in the “Feminist Seder,” with the author Esther Broner.

She rewrote the questions, together with another woman, to include women’s experience. For them, frequently, it was on the third night, instead of a traditional seder. It was in addition. And for me, of course, and others, it was the only seder.

We would all, and still do, gather and use these questions and answers. As you know, it is saying, “why were our foremothers sad on this night? Because they could not take part in the ceremony.”  

Then we say our names and our mothers’ names and our grandmothers’ names, as far back as we can go: “I am Gloria, daughter of Ruth, daughter of Marie…” which usually is not very far, and all the women who were sad because they had no names of their own. It is very moving. And there is always a topic of discussion.

Q: That is beautiful. It is a great ritual.

A: It really is. And it made me appreciate the fact that the seder is communal, a ceremony in which all voices are heard, unlike just one person talking and an audience.  

Q: The backstory for this Shalom Center event started when you participated on Oprah, as Oprah asked you to describe a transformative moment in your life. You shared a story from the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago:

I was giving out farm worker’s literature and I thought, ‘Why am I doing this?’ And Arthur Waskow, a wonderful man, comes up to me and says [here you grasped Oprah's hand], ‘It’s important, what you are doing. Everything is important!’ And I’ve never forgotten that.

Can you elaborate on this?

A: It was a complete accident. It proves that we are the most effective when we behave as if everything we do matters, because we have no idea which thing is going to matter.  

Because he said to me at a very crucial juncture, I never forgot it. I am not sure if we have seen each other even after that. When she asked me that question, it came into my mind. I do not know if he saw it or somebody told him about it, but anyway he got in touch with me.  


In the language of the Cherokee, there are no “he” and “she.” People are people. Painting by Henry Timberlake.

Q: Does it matter in a different way today? When you talk to young women, are you heartened? When you go to campuses, and still see the legacy that you are going to transmit, that you have transmitted, and actively transmit?

A: You know, nothing is ever enough. Nothing I do, anyone else does, is ever enough. But within that, I am very heartened when I talk to young women.  

First of all, if you just look at the public opinion poles, young women are much more likely to become feminist supporters of this issue than older women. The idea that the movement is over is part of the opposition to the movement.  

Stage one of the opposition is: “You can’t do that, it’s against nature, or something.” And stage two is: “Well, it used to be necessary, but it’s not anymore.” But, in fact, quite the opposite is the case.

Young women are much more alert to discrimination, aware of discrimination, much more rebellious against it, and much more full of dreams and ambitions, which is the whole idea.

The truth of the matter is, it is not going to really work until men raise children as much as women do. Women are now more equal outside the house, but men are not very equal in it. There are a lot of men who really are full parents; there has been progress, but it is still far from the norm.

Q: That is why feminism is about gender: It is about men and women’s relationships; you cannot change one without the other.

A: I agree. I would only add that there is no gender in real life. People are people.

The individual difference between two people, because each person is unique, is probably bigger than the generalized differences between genders. And if you look up the grid, beyond the lens of gender, it is very helpful, because it allows men to be individuals, too.  

In original cultures around the world, as far as I have been able to discover — the Cherokee, on this continent, for instance — languages did not even have “he” and “she,” people were people. They may have had different functions for the two genders, perhaps, but there were a lot of people who did not keep to that, and that was alright too.

Q: Much more freedom and fluidity.

A: Right. Because in the deep sense, the purpose of the invention of gender roles was to control reproduction. Men owned the means of reproduction — women — and that brought in the idea of male dominance and female submission. Which, if you look at 100,000 years of human history, is not that old.  

Q: You have said, “In later years, if I’m remembered at all it will be for inventing a phrase like ‘reproductive freedom.’ [It is] a phrase [that] includes the freedom to have children or not to. So it makes it possible for us to make a coalition.”  

Are not the new reproductive technologies, including in vitro fertilization and donor egg, providing women with similar choices to have children or not to, and to responsibly exercise their own reproductive freedoms?  

A: I did not predict technology. I think the addition of technology does not change the basic principle: That each women has the power to make decisions over her own body, without government interference, and without religious interference. That we have at least as much legal right over own physical selves as we do over our literal property.

Right now, assaults on bodies — rapes, domestic violence, and other forms of violence — are sometimes less punished than invasions of private property, trespassing, etc. We have a long way to go in terms of the law.

What enters into that is social pressure.

Q: To have a baby or not to have a baby.

A: Yes. So the idea that all women should have children, that one is somehow unnatural without children. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, the idea that someone is odd for having too many children. They are both present in our culture. So we have to continue to work to make it possible to make a decision, a free decision.


Alice Walker had paid a price for exposing violence against women within the black community.

Of course, there is an additional concern here, which is surrogate mothers. Women who have children, who become the biological parents for other people, is that free will or economic pressure?

Q: The late writer Christopher Hitchens wrote a provocative essay in Vanity Fair, years ago, stating that women are not funny. You wrote satire in your early career. How was humor a vehicle for, or maybe a counterpoint to, your own work?

A: Humor is very crucial, and a big indicator of whether we are free or not. Literally, laughter is the most free emotion. You can compel fear. You can even compel love: if people are kept isolated and dependent long enough, in order to survive they come to feel dependent upon, and even love, for their captors.  

Laughter cannot be compelled. It happens when you suddenly recognize something, or put two things together and they unexpectedly make a third. When you learn, when you see an irony. Real laughter cannot be compelled. And I think that is an indicator of how important it is as a measure of freedom.

Q: In your essay on Alice Walker, Do You Know This Woman? She Knows You, you wrote that she exposes, in The Third Life of Grange Copeland, violence against women, “years before most women had begun to tell the truth in public.”  

A: Yes, and she paid a price for it sometimes, because within the black community there was some understandable worry that somehow exposing faults within the community, violence in the community, would work against it. But, of course, it’s not true. Telling the truth usually works out the best. And I think many more people have come to agree with her now.

Q: What novelists and play writes do you read, who continue to inspire your vision? Are you fueled by the imagination and other writers?  

A: I confess that I have so many important and mind-blowing books and articles, that are not fiction, that I find that I just do not have the time that I would like to explore fiction.

Q: It is surprising, because your essays, especially the one on your mother Ruth, are quite literary.

A: If I had to pick a favorite form of writing, I think it would be the essay. What the essay allows you to do is start out in a personal place and come to a human, universal or larger point.

I think that is a very important form of writing because it allows us to use a narrative, and the human brain works on narratives. If you tell us a fact, we will try to make a story up as to why the fact is true. We need a narrative, and the essay allows you to do that, and also to illuminate reality that way.  

The funny thing was about that essay was that it was as if I had been waiting to write it, because I knew that I could not write it while she was alive, as it would make her sad.  

When I was writing it I thought, “everybody wants to write about their parents, this is not going to answer anyone but me.” Then, when I started to go around with the book in which it was, I discovered the responses were quite the opposite.  

Given the bias against women in the culture, a lot of people, men and women, had mothers who could not put their talents to use.

Q: At the 10th anniversary of Ms. Magazine, you were in Detroit, and a woman turned to you and said you were “the inside of me.”

A: I have never forgotten that.

Q: What is “the inside” of you?

A: The first thing I thought of when you said that are those nested Russian dolls, in which there are many selves. I think we are that: our child selves and our later selves are nested inside us.  

When we are born, there is a person in that baby, as anyone who has ever met a baby knows. The question is, will they be helped to become who they are, or will society or parents try to make them into something that they are not?  

I suppose, in one sense, it is my early child self still there, and sometimes more than others, because the hopes and fears and delights are so rooted there; there are so many layers that we may not realize it.  

In an ordinary moment, when I am walking in the street and the sun is out, it is just about a moment in which you feel a sense of well being, that you are somehow part of everything around you.

Q: Interconnected.

A: There is this sense of well-being; it does not last very long, but it is memorable. And if we can let those moments guide us, it will probably take us on the right path.

I do not mean to say that human beings are isolated in that moment. It is a feeling of connection that gives you the sense of well-being. It is a connection to the universe, to other people, to nature, to the ice-cream cone, to whatever is there.

Q: I think Freud called it the “oceanic moment,” this feeling of “oneness.”

A: Well, I am glad to know that he said something sensible; it is pretty rare.  

Theater Review: “4000 Miles” and Nothing Gained


“4000 Miles,” playing at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad Street, until Nov. 11. Post-show discussion with playwright Amy Herzog on Nov. 8.

“4000 Miles” by Amy Herzog, directed by Mary Robinson and playing at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre until November 11, is the theater version of easy-listening music.  

While the performances by Beth Dixon (Vera) and Davy Raphaely (Leo) were outstanding, and the two-hour play goes by fast, it is not a conceptually or intellectually compelling evening at the theater. In both plot and dialogue, it is a traditional drama that does not take any risks, but delivers a familiar family story that is predictable, if heartwarming and poignant all the same.  

Playwright Herzog tells the story of Leo, a young man in his 20s who arrives in his Grandmother Vera’s New York City apartment one night at 3 a.m., after biking cross-country. Both characters are confronting death: Leo is silently grieving his best friend’s death, and Vera, the last of a group of progressive octogenarians, finds herself confronting death regularly.    

Continued after the jump.
Herzog tells a familiar story, that could have been more interesting had Herzog rooted the communist Vera in a historical, ethnic, or religious history. The play is based on Herzog’s family, with Vera “based quite directly on my real biological grandmother, who is 95 and lives still in Greenwich Village.”  

In the play, Herzog de-racinates Vera, so she could be either a New England Wasp lefty or a Jewish New Yorker one. This failure to root her in a clearer ethnic background limits the play’s impact, but widens its appeal. The play, like a television sitcom, becomes a generic portrayal of a family that, in its lack of specificity, merely appeals and entertains on a sentimental level.  

I could not help agreeing with Herzog’s real-life grandma, Leepee, who after seeing “After the Revolution,” another of Herzog’s plays, said, “Well, Amy is very creative, but ultimately she’s a conservative.” While I take “conservative” here as politically conservative, I would add aesthetically conservative as well, as the play does not push any creative boundaries.


Beth Dixon and Davy Raphaeli.

Leo, a self-described hippy, who eschews college for cross-country biking, wall climbing, tending a community garden and living off his parents and grandmother, is a New Age idealist, whose certainty and cockiness belay his own emotional confusions and his vulnerability.  

In a scene where he brings a young Chinese Parsons student (Amanda, played by Leigha Kato) back to his grandmother’s apartment to seduce her, the art student is alarmed by his grandmother’s communism.  

“Are you a communist?” she asks him, stating that her parents escaped Communist oppression and that she doesn’t think she could get romantic in a “communist” apartment, Leo reassures her that “communism is like recycling:” It was the progressive way to be when his grandmother was young. In other words, communism in Herzog’s play is a consumer fashion, that might show up on Portlandia anytime soon.  

Other than the Chinese character, who is a caricature of young artistic energy and clichéd dialogue, the characters are devoid of history, as is the communism in the play itself. The play depoliticizes communism, which becomes a vague signifier about resistance, or irreverence or other-ness, mildly tinged with danger and bravado.  

Although vague reference is made to a book that Vera’s second husband edited about Cuba, communism is presented as passé; indeed, even Vera’s neighbor, who shares her lefty political beliefs, is repeatedly dismissed as a “pain in the ass.”  

The personal is not political in Herzog’s play — it supercedes the political. It does not disrupt the nuclear family’s sentimental conflicts — it is like the beautiful setting and lighting (by Thom Weaver) of the play: Pleasant to look at, and go home and forget.

But politics, other than as a vague reference, is not what Herzog is exploring. It is the realm of human emotions and familial ties that bind and unravel. One of the more compelling sub-plots is a reference to an incestuous relationship between Leo and his adopted Chinese sister.

But this is left unexplored in the play, which ventures into a potentially interesting territory: that of sexuality, commitment, aging and desire, remaining superficial in its treatment.  

Obie Award-winning, and Pulitzer-nominated, “4000 Miles” remains a non-challenging, but highly entertaining bit of theater. It will offend neither tea party-ers, nor communists, nor anything in between — which, depending on your politics and aesthetics, might be either comic or tragic.      

Cooking (and Laughing) with the Calamari Sisters

Cooking with the Calamari Sisters
Through: May 19, 2013.
At: Society Hill Playhouse, 507 S. Eighth St.
Tickets: $45.
Information: 215-923-0210 or ComcastTIX.

— by Lisa Grunberger

Cooking with the Calamari Sisters has two weeks left of a long run at Society Hill Playhouse, and if you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and “Screw the Gym, Pass the Lasagna,” as the Calamari Sisters say and go to this fabulously entertaining show.

This campy, irreverent show stars Jay Falzone as Delphine Calamari, and Stephen Smith as his sister Carmela Calamari. Yes, this is a tour-de-force drag show, complete with audience participation, improvisation, risqué humor, song and dance, and real cooking. From sausage jokes to Jesus jokes, the Calamari Sisters strikes the right balance of campy irreverence and edginess — it’s difficult not to laugh out loud, and laugh you will.

More after the jump.
Created with Dan Lavender, the show comes to Philadelphia after a two year run in Rochester, NY. This over-the-top show pokes fun at food shows like “The Rachael Ray Show” even as it covets a place in the holy grail of the Food Network. Learn about “Antipasta for Anorexics: Dishes Desgined to Block Your Arteries,” and Grandma Minestrone as you watch these tireless, professional drag queens bring the house down in a highly engaging performance that will leave you humming “Volare” as you walk onto 8th Street. “In our family, the only zone is a calzone,” says the Calamari Sisters.  

Interview: the Show That Proves That Women are Funny

— by Lisa Grunberger

I had the opportunity to interview Jennifer Childs, Artistic Director of 1812 Productions, Philadelphia’s All Comedy Theatre Company, about her new comedy, which she wrote and directed, It’s My Party: The Women and Comedy Project. It’s My Party began in 2010 with two questions: how do women use comedy and how does the usage change as they age. Through collage, cabaret, and stand-up Childs investigates gender stereotypes that lock women into certain roles, such as the ditz, the vamp, and the old maid.  

In some ways, the play responds to Christopher Hitchens’ provocative comment in a Vanity Fair article years ago, claiming that women aren’t funny. The first act of this compelling show had the audience laughing on the opening night last Wedensday. The all-woman ensemble includes comedic veterans of the Philadelphia theatre. The play incorporates original and devised music by the cast and the musical director Monica Stephenson, and features a set by 1812 Productions’ designer Lance Kniskern.

Full interview after the jump.

It’s My Party: The Women and Comedy Project
Playing at: Plays and Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey St.
Through: Sunday, May 19.
Tickets: $22 to $38.
Information: 215-592-9560 or 1812 Productions’ website.

Q: Tell me how The Women and Comedy Project came about? What was your process? There are African-American Women, white women, an Asian woman, and a diverse age-range. No Latinas and or Jewish women — how did you make casting decisions and were questions of ethnicity important in your thought process?

JC: I interviewed over 100 women all along the East coast, pulling together anecdotes, stories and personal experiences. I wanted it to be racially and age diverse, but I was more interested in exploring the brains, heart and sous of these women. It would have become a different show if there was one woman representative of each “flavor” or ethnic background.  

Q: How did you arrive at the three act structure of the play?

JC: I could have written a linear 90 minute script, but I gave myself permission to stretch the form and it was very liberating.

Q: Can you briefly describe each act and what you had in mind?

JC: The first act, which I call ‘The Lecture,’ represents the youngest age, say women in their 20s who I found use humor to gain attention. It’s an age when you don’t have your own voice and you use stereotypes and imitations to find your comedic voice.  

The second Act, called ‘The Ritual,’ represents women in their 30s and 40s, when women discover that comedy can save your soul. You can use humor as a weapon to fight and survive.

Q: This is where we hear the women sharing their stories. Were these stories autobiographical or were they a composite or synthesis of the many interviews you did?

JC: They were the actresses’ own stories, that we had “workshopped.”

Q: In the second act, we hear one of the characters tell a story about learning she has breast cancer, which her mother had died of. Was this the actress’s own story, and couldn’t this be seen as potentially not funny? Or as simply “empowering” and therapeutic to share but not necessarily art or theatrically interesting?

JC: It is her own story, and I’m surprised that that’s confusing to people. I was reading about the comedienne Tig Notaro and how she was diagnosed with cancer right after her mom died, and she was so funny. It’s about owning what happens to you and not apologizing for it, and that can be funny.

Q: Tell me about the third act of the play.

JC: The third act, called ‘The Rave,’ is about the oldest age, women in their 70s, and it’s about being audacious. In naming it “the rave” I’m referencing the rave dances, but also the association with stark raving mad and the rave as a rant. By this age, women don’t care anymore. If you want to wear polka-dots, stripes and mismatched shoes, so be it. My daughter is 9 and my mother is in her 70s, and I see similarities in their not caring about what other people think.

Q: How, if at all, do you think about audience?

JC: Comedy is about audience. I think it is extremely important to connect with the audience, which I think of as the last character in the play. The show isn’t finished until there is laughter. Only then is the rhythm complete. I mean, if a joke is told in a forest and no one is there to hear it, is it funny?

Q: One of the characters says “I’m too radiant for irony.” What did you learn during your interviews about women, humor and irony, and how did this get translated into the show?

JC: I was surprised that no woman I interviewed thought she was funny. When I asked them to sing a rap I had written during the auditions — and this was a rap about being smart and beautiful and sexy — the women were tentative. Some feared that people will not like them if they sing a song like this. But this is exactly what the play is exploring — I want women to take ownership of their own goofiness. To find a way to say “this is what I want.”

Q: The danger is sounding too sincere or sentimental in this approach, right? Too much like Jack Handy’s “deep thoughts.”

JC: It’s a fine line. More and more people employ irony and cynical humor on the stage, but it’s the death of theatre if we presume that you can’t be hurt, that there’s no vulnerability. Part of comedy is precisely this threat of being vulnerable. I see sincerity and openness as being a lot braver than coming up with snarky comments. it was important to me to create something that felt honest and honored the interviewees’ stories.

Haimish For the Holidays

Dianne Reeves in Concert at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

— by Robert Margolis

Whatever the season, when jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves comes to town to sing, she sings about her family and her childhood. Oyb zi volt gezungen vegn zey in Yiddish, if she sang about them in Yiddish (and if only she would sing a song or two in Yiddish!), she could call it: Haimish For The Holidays…

More after the jump.
Dianne Reeves did come to our town, Saturday, December 1st, with her band, appearing at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts and performing the kind of Christmas program distinctive to jazz artists and musicians. Her band of fine-fingered festive musicians was: Reginald Veal on acoustic and electric bass, Billy Childs on acoustic and electric piano, Terreon Gully on drums and percussion, Romero Lumbambo on acoustic and electric guitar. This quartet clearly is ‘at home’ in the songscapes which, with her sumptuous, scintillating voice, Ms. Reeves invokes and evokes for musician and listener alike. In every tempo, there came upon us a ‘cascadence,’ to coin a word, of luscious and laving sound.

And, indeed, she did sing about–and for–her grandmother and her mother, a shared selection from her private family album-in-song. For her too, memory is for a blessing; remembrance gives life, and to remember is to choose life.

Jazz, as readers may know, has its own tradition of Christmas and holiday music, doing for Christmas and holiday songs what jazz has always done with standards and other popular songs; that is, to swing them, to re-chord and re-phrase them, to innovate with the familiar and to surprise with the expected. Which, precisely, is what Ms. Reeves and her band did with Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here.”

Jazz does not confine itself to the conventional and expected holiday tunes. Neither did Dianne Reeves. Prefaced by her humorous story of first meeting Sarah Vaughan — who subsequently became a mentor to her, she sang “Misty,” for some weather-at least in a classic jazz standard-is always in season. Her choicest selection of song for the evening was “A Child Is Born,” by Thad Jones, in which her whole art of song interpretation was en force.

If there could be an heir to the voice of Ella Fitzgerald-and almost certainly there cannot be, but if there could be, then Dianne Reeve’s voice, in song, is an heir. Hers is one of those singing voices which is as a bridge between earth and heaven, from gutbucket groan to swinging seraphic.

Finally, if I may make a request of Ms. Reeves for next year’s program: sing a song or two in Yiddish, giving them that Brazilian setting in which you so like to s(w)ing!

Those readers who observe the traditional Jewish Christmas Day of a movie and Chinese food, may want to add to your observance and get jazzed for the holidays with the music of Dianne Reeves. On Tantzn, on Zingn, on Freilekhtn …With tithings of naches and azoy!

The next concert in the Annenberg Center‘s Jazz series will be jazz vocalist Jane Monheit in performance, Saturday, March 16, 2013, at 8 PM (there will be a pre-show talk at 7 PM with Jane Monheit).

The Borgata Hotel in Atlantic City

KD Lang, Tony Bennett, Jerry Seinfeld, and the Temptations

Philadelphia has a vibrant music, cultural, and arts scene and we are fortunate to have the Wilma Theatre, The Walnut, InterAct, the Suzanne Roberts Theatre and avante garde companies like the Pig Iron.  Broad Street is a culture maven’s paradise.

More after the jump.  
Labor Day marks beginnings and endings:  the end of summer, the beginning of school, the end of blueberries, the beginning of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.   Only an hour drive from Philadelphia, you can still take a walk on the Atlantic City boardwalk and take in a show at the Borgata Hotel.   The fall season at the Borgata Music Box and Event Center is filled with big names like Art Garfunkel, Tony Bennett, and The Temptations.

On Friday, August 17, Canadian pop and country singer-songwriter KD Lang performed a 90 minute set at the intimate Borgata Music Box Theatre.  She transported her devoted fans with standards like “Constant Craving” and “Miss Chatelaine.”   Lang’s version of Leonard’s Cohen “Hallelujah” was by far the most moving song in a vast and varied repertoire.  Lang closed the evening by paying homage to her “mentor” and duet partner, Tony Bennett.  

Lang is not just a singer, but a grand performer.   She fills the stage with her diva presence; she dances, jokes and banters with the audience: “They’ll be no hate’in here tonight” she said, with a smile on her face. Lang, 50, is best known for her 1992 hit “Constant Craving,” which won her a Grammy for best pop vocal performance. In 1989, she shared a Grammy with Roy Orbison for their collaboration on “Crying” and won for best female country vocal performance for her album “Absolute Torch and Twang.” In 2003, she and Tony Bennett won the Grammy for best traditional pop vocal for their standards CD, “A Wonderful World.”

“The Siss Boom Bang – they bring an extra-special zest to the record, performing it live in the studio,” she said in a video interview for Australia’s Art Nation. “The collaborative energy of having six people involved is really important. Plus, the songwriting process was really, really fun and superfast, so the momentum of the record seemed to gather steam and never peter out. It all happened very fast. We went into the studio with a session booked. The second we started recording, it was obvious there was something special about the group of people. After three days, we recorded eight songs. The band was integral to the sound of the record, so I just thought in all fairness it was k.d. lang and the Siss Boom Bang because they were so much a part of the record.”

So even though on this rainy Labor Day we feel summer slipping away, only a hour’s ride away is the ocean, the boardwalk, and the Borgata Hotel with a fabulous line-up of cultural events this season.

Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa
One Borgata Way
Atlantic City, NJ 08401
General Information: 1 609 317 1000
customercare@theborgata.com

Meetup with Philadelphia Jewish Voice Writers At LimmudPhilly

If you are planning on attending Limmud Philly this weekend, be sure to stop by the Philadelphia Jewish Voice’s table this Sunday, April 29 any time between 11am and 3pm. You’ll get a chance to meet our Living Judaism editor Rabbi Goldie Milgram, our Kosher Table editor Ronit Treatman, myself and other members of the Philadelphia Jewish Voice community. There will be free bumper stickers, books and mitzvah cards available for purchase, and you’ll be able to see what herbs Ronit has growing in her garden.

If you weren’t thinking of attending Limmud Philly 2012, please do. Click here for details about this year’s Limmud, and see our coverage of

Please come. We would love to meet you.

  • Location: Friends Select School, 17th & Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA
  • Time: Sunday, April 29, 2012, 11am-3pm.


The Soap Myth Off Broadway: “Unreliable Memories” & the Holocaust

— by Lisa Grunberger

Although I saw it over 48 hours ago, The Soap Myth,  playing in New York City at the Black Box Theatre, through April 22, continues to haunt me. This is the theatre of witness at its best – provocative and  morally ambiguous that raises more questions than it answers.  Playwright Jeff Cohen and director of the National Jewish Theatre, Arnold Mittelman’s The Soap Myth explores the claim that the Nazis made soap out of Jewish bodies.  

More after the jump.
Greg Mullavey is brilliant in the role of Milton Saltzman, a Holocaust survivor who bears personal witness to the production of the alleged soap.    The play explores the “inherent conflict between the eyewitness survivor memories and the evidentiary standards demanded by scholars.”  It explores too what role, if any, Holocaust deniers play in this issue.   To what extent ought the Holocaust deniers, who figure prominently in the play, affect Jewish museum exhibits?  More than you would like to think.

“All history is speculative” says Annie Blumberg, the young journalist (played admirably by Andi Potamkin) reporting on the soap myth for a magazine.   The denier, played brilliantly by Dee Pelletier (who also plays the museum director) gives a disturbing lecture, based on actual facts, delivered to a university audience, where she casts doubt on the number of victims who perished during the Shoah. “Must the Jews be greedy even in this” — referring to her claim that Jews have egregiously exaggerated the number of victims who died.    

In exploring the politics of memory, The Soap Myth asks uncomfortable questions about what constitutes enough evidence to make it into a museum exhibit. When the museum gatekeepers reject Milton’s repeated requests to include the soap in their exhibit, they are effectively denying this survivor’s testimony as purely anecdotal. The dramatic struggle of The Soap Myth is Milton’s attempt to get somebody to listen to his painful story.  

The Soap Myth is presented as part of the National Jewish Theatre Foundation and Holocaust Archive initiative, directed by Arnold Mittelman.  Mittelman is the Former Producing Artistic Director for over two decades of the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida.  Mittelman founded the National Jewish Theatre in 2007.   Its mission is to celebrate the “genius, creativity and history of the Jewish people.”   NJT produced the Soul of Gershwin, the Musical Journey of an American Calmer, Sholom Alechem: Laughter Through Tears with Theodore Bikel as author and actor.  Future plans of the NJT include plays and musicals such as: The Rothschilds, Joseph Vass’ Words By, Mark Saltzman’s Rocket City Alabam and Hannah by John Wooten.  

NJT’s latest initiative is to create the first comprehensive research and production oriented around the Holocaust Theatre Archive. According to Mittelman, the NJT is filling an unfortunate void that has occurred by the loss of many professional resident English-speaking Jewish theatres, in major cities, including New York.  

It is worth a ride to NYC to see this provocative, haunting play which will have you thinking about the nature of memory and how a survivor survives these memories for a long time.   The Soap Myth is not to be missed.  

The Soap Myth: Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre in NYC. Click here for tickets.

Remaining Showtimes

  • Special Holocaust Remembrance Day performances, Today, Thursday, April 19, 2012 3:00 PM and 7:00 PM
  • Friday, April 20, 2012, 8:00 PM
  • Saturday, April 21, 2012, 3:00 PM
  • Final performance, Sunday, April 22, 2012, 3:00 PM

Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 W. 46th Street, New York, NY 10036
Ticket Price: $50-$60; $20 student rush
Ticket Information: 212-352-3101