By Harriet P. Gross
If you hurry, and if you have an open mind, you might still be able to catch “Burying Our Father” at the Undermain Theatre in Dallas.
Hurry is important, because the run of this “play” will end Saturday evening. An open mind is even more important, because there’s something in this performance to offend just about everyone who believes in, or just respects, any religion. It’s subtitled “A Biblical Debacle,” which should give you a clue.
But the artistry of the two who, together, created and perform this 80-minute/no-intermission piece deserves highest praise. Fred Curchack did the writing here, where he’s a professor of aesthetic studies at the University of Texas at Dallas’ School of Arts and Humanities, then shipped it to Petaluma, Calif., for Laura Jorgensen to polish its stage presence. This is the 10th of their joint efforts. I’ve seen all of them, and many of Curchack’s 27 previous solo works of performance art as well.
I’ve been a Fred Curchack “junkie” since 1986, when he staged his “Search for Freddy Chicken” at UTD. This early work was, like many of his later performance pieces, highly personal: Curchack is Polish for chicken, which tells you something about his ancestry. In “Burying Our Father,” his repeated battle cry is “Oy Gevalt,” which tells you the rest. He’s not a Jew in the synagogue-going sense, but he is definitely a member of this tribe.
Here he is Abraham, and the patriarch’s older son Ishmael and the maidservant mother, Hagar, moving back and forth from one character to the other with quick twists of a scarf and a sometimes on, sometimes off scraggly phony beard. (Jorgensen also quick-changes, playing a half-dozen parts including God, which alone is off-putting enough for many.)
The premise: Abraham has died, and half-brothers Ishmael and Isaac (Jorgensen), who haven’t seen each other since the day of the former’s banishment courtesy of his mother, Sarah (also Jorgensen), come together to bury their mutual father.
Curchack knows his Bible, as he does many other classics. In one of his best solo pieces, he becomes the Italian poet Dante, traveling through his circles of Hell. In what is probably his very best, he does a one-man interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” using puppets, light and shadow to bring the story to incredible life.
Here, in “Burying,” he uses many of these same techniques, which have become Curchack hallmarks. But here, he wanders from the story as Jews and Christians know it, to make us think of other possibilities. Irreverent, certainly. Sacrilege, maybe. But effective, without a doubt.
Is it possible, Curchack asks through acting, that Ishmael was not banished — something our Torah and the Christian Old Testament tell us Sarah wanted and God approved — but was actually sent away by Allah to found a great nation of his own? Is it possible that Isaac has no memory at all of being bound for sacrifice by his own father, and so can convincingly deny that this cornerstone of our shared Judeo-Christian history ever happened?
Curchack is now well into his 60s. He is fuller of face and has a little more paunch and a lot less hair than in his Freddy Chicken days. But he moves with incredible ease and grace, retaining everything he learned in his younger years of study with masters of Japanese, Balinese and Indian theater and dance.
And he knows his psychology. Is he perhaps the first to suggest, in this day of shocking child abuse discoveries and validated repressed memories, that Isaac actually suffered a kind of amnesia after his near-sacrifice, a protective device that allowed him to continue functioning in a normal manner throughout his life? An exploration of this possibility lies at the heart of “Burying Our Father,” and — whether or not we like to tamper with our stories of origin — it is really something to think about. As Curchack presents this theory, it cannot be discounted or ignored.
There is a terrible honesty in this piece, too, that cannot be downplayed today. At its end, after the many discussions and revelations, after Abraham is buried by his two sons together, after God has gone back to his heaven, all is still not right with the world. As the 80 minutes expire, we are left with the sight of Isaac and Ishmael alone together on stage, circling each other menacingly, knives in hand. Even the creative Curchack can envision no other end to the Middle East conflict.
If you decide to have a look yourself, don’t say I didn’t warn you.