nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 19, 2011
JewQueen is a Purim spiel: it's a re-telling of the biblical story of Queen Esther, in very loose play form, definitely celebratory in nature (with bits of audience participation thrown in and hamantaschen served at the end). It's created by Little Lord, with text devised by the company and taken from a variety of public domain sources (including the Old Testament). Its point seems to be that the more secular among us have little real understanding of or appreciation for the religious holidays we celebrate. Is Purim an occasion for truly honoring the deeds of Esther and their significance in the ongoing history of the Jewish people; or is it just an excuse to throw a party, drink some wine, and nibble on some prune pastry?
The show is performed by five women and two men (one of whom is the director, Michael Levinton). All seven are on stage, ready to heartily greet the audience as we arrive; all seven are in dresses, something that confused me throughout the evening. The five women wear what appear to be former bridesmaid dresses, a little too garish and overblown for party wear and not particular attractive. The two men, presumably lacking bridesmaid dresses of their own, wear more flattering and appropriate outfits. I kept thinking: why? Genders are bent continuously as the story of Queen Esther is told in JewQueen, but the gender-blind casting and the crazy costuming neither felt transgressive or pointed.
Nor did the freewheeling, Ridiculous Theater-influenced style of the piece. It's filled with anachronisms, purposefully coarse juxtapositions, musical numbers, lots of self-referential/fourth-wall breaking irony, and numerous deliberate "mistakes" (Levinton has trouble pronouncing the name of Esther's husband, King Ahasuerus; Laura von Holt "accidentally" loses an outlandish wig on stage; that sort of thing). Little Lord describes their style as "cheap 'n' cheerful," which is true as far as it goes. But what value—beyond gently sending up what they term "faith-based community happenings"—does this approach really serve?
Mostly, I was aware of a group of performers playing at being less talented than they actually are. Before the show proper begins, Julia Arazi delivers a rendition of "The Greatest Love of All" meant to permanently puncture any memory you might have of Whitney Houston's hit single. It feels like the kind of thing you'd do drunkenly at a gathering of friends; indeed, that's the ambience that Little Lord conjures in this entire show. But there's a seriousness of purpose underneath: the show is clearly well-rehearsed and planned. The result is that postmodern collision that happens so frequently: we're expected to respect the theme and intent of a piece even while it shrieks "sendup" in our faces at the top of its lungs.