By Harriet P. Gross
This could be a subject for Rosh Hashana or the secular New Year. But since it’s a new play with trees on stage, and since Tu B’Shevat — the New Year for Trees — will be here in just a couple of days, let’s go with it now.
“In the Beginning” is playing at the Dallas Theater Center’s old Kalita Humphreys venue. DTC has been with us for 50 years now, and is currently preparing to move into a new Arts District home, led by its new artistic director. But Kevin Moriarty isn’t waiting for the new theater before trying two new things. The first is actually old/new: He’s reestablished a resident acting company, something this venerable professional organization hasn’t had for years. And the other is this new play.
“In the Beginning” is a creation by Moriarty, his production team and the 14 actors who appear in it — including all nine who make up the new resident company. It’s based on the first 10 chapters of the Book of Genesis, and presents three of the stories on stage: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah and the flood. It represents an audacious act of theatrical improvisation, tightened up and formalized for an audience not used to improv here.
How did this come about? With an idea for DTC’s own new beginning, an advisory group of 14 (mostly clergy of various denominations) and a dozen weeks of hard, hard work.
The Playbill spells it out: “Faith and religion are key components that define a community and its members. As a forum for community expression, our theater seeks to speak to the issues, ideas and experiences that connect its constituents…. ‘In the Beginning’ is not meant to explain ancient mysteries, but to engage the audience with the questions faced in these Biblical stories.”
One rabbi served on the production’s advisory council: Oren Hayon of Temple Emanu-El. And “In the Beginning” started from quite a different beginning, he says: The initial idea was to adapt some medieval Christian “mystery plays” based on Scripture. But “Jewish interpretation of Scripture is narrative rather than theatrically dramatic. So I told them about midrashim,” he recalls, which led to the selection of the Book of Genesis, a common text. And to a format in which the words of contemporary Bible translation are read, and simultaneously interpreted by actors on stage.
The advisory board, stage crew, production staff and actors brainstormed together, all with various open Bibles. But they often found the texts ambiguous and unclear, which posed many theological challenges. Rabbi Hayon recounts a couple of these: Was God angry with Adam and Eve for eating the off-limits apple, or was He perhaps delighted with their inquisitiveness? Noah was supposedly saved because he was righteous, but was he really a bad person for spending all his time building his own ark instead of going out and telling others to get busy and save themselves, too?
The Playbill reports, “The company did not find definitive answers or a single encompassing interpretation of the text. Rather, what they found were more questions. They were surprised to discover that there was much more to these stories than they remembered or had been taught. Words took on new meaning, fresh insights were discovered, and revelations about the text surfaced as new light was shed on tales that were familiar to most.”
The group’s discussions were taped, and much of that content found its way into the text of the “finished” play. Finished, in quotes, because “In the Beginning” is billed as a two-act production, but the three Bible tales are told in the first act; the second is a conversation between the on-stage company and those seated in the audience, a back-and-forth of questions, answers, ideas and song.
“The process is as important as the product,” says Rabbi Hayon, who disclaims responsibility or credit for suggesting the large Hebrew transcription of Beresheet’s opening words that forms the stage backdrop — but does accept same for helping cast members with their Hebrew pronunciation. “I am really excited to be a part of this!”
So why not see “In the Beginning” yourself? You may love, or hate, the idea of various actors walking the stage in godly white pajamas, taking turns at playing the Main Character. But you will definitely appreciate
DTC’s brave risk-taking as it begins its sixth decade.
And if you go on Tu B’Shevat, you can enjoy beautiful, revolving stage trees without having to eat any of the forbidden fruit yourself!
By Harriet P. Gross