nytheatre.com review by Maria Micheles
March 5, 2011
In Hebrew, the word besharet can mean one of two things: soulmate, finding your other half; or, that which was just meant to be. In the play Besharet by Chana Porter, both meanings are unraveled and dealt with in both modern and Jewish mystical ways. Eric Berninghausen’s set is itself evocative of this, with the front of the stage resembling a modern office with desk, stapler, rolodex, swivel chair, and right behind it a deck leading to a lake, surrounded by dry shrubs and what appear to be grey dunes.
As the play opens, Renee is occupied doing the things one who works in a law office does, but in such a soft-spoken, subdued, sweet, and ultra professional manner that you’d want to hire her on the spot if you were an employer. When her partner in the firm, Samuel, enters, the two commence in playing office games that are so much fun, it just about makes the law firm the most ideal place one can be working in. That is, up until an unexpected visitor, Eli, appears. Renee asks him, “Can I help you?” He responds eerily while focusing on Samuel that he’s there to help them.
In the world of this play and in Jewish Mysticism, when people come into your life it is for a reason, no matter how small or insignificant a role they may seem to have, and nothing is taken for granted, no slip of the tongue, mishap, desire, or dream. The two meanings of besharet are explained to Eli by Samuel’s wife, Ruth, who converses with Eli during dinner, as Samuel has invited him to spend Shabbat with them, and since he’s less observant than the couple, they try to catch him up. However, Eli starts to exhibit some strange eating manners, and expressions, and brings the couple out of their ease. But wanting to be good hosts, instead of sending him away, they invite him to sleep over.
That is when things start to go wrong, and wrong only in regard to the kind of life the couple has gotten used to and settled into, which is revealed to be a childless and unhappy one for Ruth. The couple is forced to take a good look at themselves because Eli, seeing straight through them, becomes relentless in not letting them go on the way they have been. Using Porter’s eloquent and mystical dialogue, Eli tells Ruth:
You have so much love in you, it’s drowning you, it’s bursting to get out, and it’s weighing you down…so much sometimes that it’s like you can’t move, can’t even raise your head. You are so tired, but not because you can’t sleep. You need to create something…a baby…If you don’t make a baby, you will die. And Samuel thinks you’re speaking in metaphor. Samuel does not believe in the mystical. The doctors will tell him you died of some vague wasting disease. But you’ll know the truth: you died of too much love.
Ruth contemplates whether she should take him seriously, but Eli’s power to sway others depends on how much power others give him, stemming from how unfulfilled they feel in their lives. Ruth subsequently gives Samuel an ultimatum, but when Eli tries to sway Samuel to come to terms with something in his past, Samuel shuns him, telling him that he’s crazy and needs help—and warns him that sometimes people can’t change and they just die instead.
The play looks at issues which are relevant to us, such as settling in relationships that may not ultimately turn out to be what we wanted, or moving on, in hopes of finding the exact thing one wishes for. It is easy for each audience member to recognize him/herself in one of the characters on stage, whether it be Ruth’s longing, Samuel’s fighting against his past, or Renee’s anticipating something as great as bringing forth a new life. The characters' struggles provide different perspectives that makes for a very engaging evening of theatre.
All of the actors, with the help of the superb directing of Scott Rodrigue, do marvelous work here. Tia Stavila charmingly plays Renee; William Tatlock Green is a stern Sam, trying to get away from his past and sweating as he anxiously tries to confront it. MacLeod Andrews's complete submersion into the mysterious Eli is commendable, capturing his strangeness and out-of-this-worldliness and his power as he tries to sway all the characters to bring about what he deems as good. Olivia Rorick, who plays Ruth is probably the biggest surprise, at first seeming content and shrewd in trying to uphold her marriage; but once she’s forced to let go of that, she becomes a truth-seeking protagonist taking us on the journey with her, as she straightforwardly but sometimes also brutally tries to teach others what she now knows, or rather what she feels in the moment.