nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 20, 2009
The matzo-eating contest promised in the original press release seems to have been excised somewhere between the conception and the execution of Witness Relocation's new show, Haggadah; so, too, has the 50-foot table that audience members were going to be sitting around. But notwithstanding the absence of actual matzo or an actual table, Haggadah is a seder of sorts: a ritual re-telling of the story of Moses and the exodus of the Jews out of Egypt, within the context of a coming-together for an evening filled with conflicting emotions (the anxiety and happiness of a family gathering; the joy of freedom and the bitterness of slavery that co-mingle within the Passover rite itself).
Because Haggadah takes a very post-modern approach to the idea of a seder, it both celebrates and deconstructs the foregoing ideas, among others. And because it's the work of Dan Safer and his collaborators in the physical theater/dance/performance hybrid troupe Witness Relocation, it combines movement, music, monologue, and video to tell its story (such as it is) in an impressionistic series of vignettes, songs, and blackout sketches.
So here's what you should expect at Haggadah: Eight energetic performers who sing, dance, talk, and run around a great deal; re-creations of scenes from the Passover story, juxtaposed against scenes of what might happen at a modern-day seder; stream-of-consciousness ramblings and monologues; games of the kind that WR audiences expect (though not so cleanly delineated this time around: the best example is the "Four Questions," which here are random ones posed to four company members who, apparently, must improvise answers to them (one of them at the performance I attended was, I guess, which character in the movie The Ten Commandments would you most like to date)—the problem being that it's not clear to the audience that a kind of trick is being played until the sequence is nearly finished).
Speaking of The Ten Commandments: there's a LOT of it in Haggadah. Scenes from Cecil B. DeMille's epic are projected on screens at either end of the playing area and/or broadcast on the speakers throughout the performance. The overwrought melodramatics (and anti-spirituality) of the film—pretty much anytime Anne Baxter is heard as Charlton Heston's love interest—is contrasted with live dancing (there's a lovely pas-de-deux in the middle of the show, for example, that reminds us how little this love story has to do with the themes and purposes of the Passover ritual). Other times, the camp qualities of the movie are exploited—I thought the single most fun moment of the show was when footage of Yul Brynner as the Pharoah was manipulated hip-hop style to make him look even sillier than he already does in the film. (Kaz Phillips, designer of the video and projections, deserves a shout-out here.)
But the movie's triumph—the spectacular parting of the Red Sea—withstands any attempt at mockery, and manages to upstage almost everything else that happens in Haggadah.
The centerpiece of the show is a six-and-a-half-minute dance to Metallica's "Creeping Death" that has the eight performers (Abigail Browde, Heather Christian, Sean Donovan, Mike Mikos, Wil Petre, Sam Pinkleton, Laura Berlin Stinger, and Orion Taraban) running in place; a couple of the male performers, in particular, seemed to be getting an endorphin rush during this rigorous workout and watching them build up their pace in this number was pretty exciting.
But despite many intriguing sections, Haggadah overall seemed scattershot to me. I left the piece not sure what I was supposed to feel. The post-modern impulse to distance an audience from emotions works counter to what the Passover ritual is supposed to accomplish: the seder isn't just a recital of history, but rather a cathartic event designed to move its participants through the joys and sorrows of the story of the exodus to a place of upliftedness and commitment. WR's Haggadah, for all the frenetic movement on stage, didn't finally affect me in any palpable way.