Dec ’08 Spotlight

Midway between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I went down to Hyde Park to see Court Theatre’s superb new production of Caroline, or Change. When Caroline opened on Broadway in 2004, audiences didn’t know what to make of it. Closer to opera than musical comedy (like Porgy and Bess and Sweeny Todd), Caroline closed after only 136 performances, even with critical acclaim and six Tony nominations. But “change” is now our national mantra, and this sincere, emotional, poignant drama is a play whose time has come.

Caroline’s narrator is a Jewish kid named Noah Gellman who lives in a Louisiana suburb in the early ‘60s. Noah’s mother is dead and his father has recently remarried. Raised in a left-wing New York household, stepmother Rose has no respect for the local customs that supposedly govern her relationship with Caroline (the African-American housekeeper originally hired by Noah’s mother). Their domestic battle of wills inside the house intensifies, mirroring the growing political turmoil on the streets. Then Rose’s father arrives to celebrate Chanukah, inadvertently tearing the mask of Southern gentility off the ugly face of segregation.

The place and time are true to playwright Tony Kushner’s own childhood, and there are obvious autobiographical elements. Caroline also revisits themes from Kushner’s earlier work (for example, Rose’s father is clearly another incarnation of “the oldest living Bolshevik” first introduced in Angels in America), and it resonates with historical significance.

According to Mike Webb, director of the new production opening this month at the Starlight Theatre in Rockford, “Caroline, or Change is about the crossroads in time where it all starts—the moment in time where Americans start to turn the corner that eventually—unbelievably—gets us to what happened on Tuesday, November 4.”

Starlight’s production runs from December 3 through December 13. Purchase tickets from the box office at (815) 921-2160 or the website: www.rvcstarlight.com. More productions of Caroline will also open next year in Baltimore and Minneapolis.

MORE THEATRE

In my September column I wrote about the new musical Belle Barth: If I Embarrass You, Tell Your Friends which had its premiere at STAGES ‘08. With dazzling speed, this raw work-in-progress was picked up by the Theo Ubique Theatre Company, and a more polished version is now playing every weekend through December 21 at the bohemian little No Exit Café in Rogers Park.

Belle, born Annabelle Salzman, was a bawdy Borscht Belt comedienne who ran her own club in Miami and released eleven best-selling adult party albums in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Lyricist Owen Kalt told me: “Writing lyrics for Belle was fun because she didn’t hold back her thoughts or emotions—she let it all hang out.” Here’s a sample: “Dirty little secrets; I like to explore ’em. Dirty little secrets on a smoky stage. Private little secrets in a public forum made me all the rage!” Like Sophie Tucker before her and Sarah Silverman today, Belle refused to sit and watch politely from the sidelines.

To reserve tickets, call (773) 347-1109 or visit www.theoubique.org.

AUTHORS

Spertus is hosting two book signing events this month. Ilana Blumberg will be here on Sunday, December 7 to read from Houses of Study: A Jewish Woman among Books, and Ilan Stavans will be here the following week, on December 14, to read from Resurrecting Hebrew (the newest volume in Nextbook’s Jewish Encounters series). Both of these books are good reads, but I’m fascinated by the way they complement each other, telling similar first-person stories from radically different points of view.

Both of these authors have yikhes (the Yiddish word for family pedigree). In Stavans case this means that all doors open easily for him. Resurrecting Hebrew starts as a biography of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (the man typically credited with creating Hebrew as a modern, spoken language), but Stavans gives free reign to both his intellect and his imagination. He flies to Israel, where everyone he wants to see is equally eager to see him, and he summarizes meetings with countless scholars, transitioning smoothly from topic to topic with great charm and erudition.

Blumberg, born a woman, has a far different experience. In Houses of Study she describes her fervent yearning to study sacred texts, but when she arrives in Israel she learns that boys study in “the big, airy Beit Midrash” while girls study in a “tiny converted kitchen.” Frustration becomes “a large spreading thing” that girls must battle every day, and so Blumberg becomes “a religious suffragette,” working tirelessly for the day when the Modern Orthodox movement fully accommodates its female scholars.

For more information, visit www.spertus.edu. For tickets, call (312) 322-1773.

CURTAIN CALL: CIFF Report

The final film shown at this year’s 44th annual Chicago International Film Festival was Good, a powerful new Holocaust drama based on a play by C.P. Taylor. Halder (Viggo Mortensen) and Maurice (Jason Isaacs) served together in the German army during WWI, and have been friends for decades, but slowly, inexorably, Halder is drawn into the Nazi hierarchy. The deeper he gets, the more he sees, but despite his warnings, Maurice refuses to recognize the danger. Mortensen is excellent, cast against type as a befuddled intellectual, and Isaacs is terrific as an urbane, educated Jewish man too proud to ask for help until it’s too late.

In his introduction to the published version of his play, Taylor wrote: “It still seems that there are lessons to be learned if we can examine the atrocities of the Third Reich as the result of the infinite complexity of contemporary human society, and not a simple conspiracy of criminals and psychopaths.” These are brave words from a man who admits to “deeply felt anxiety” during WWII, always worried that his Jewish family, living in the safety of Scotland, was doomed. I have been hard on most recent films about the Holocaust, but I recommend Good without hesitation.

Reviews of more recommended films with Jewish themes and content are posted in the “Columns” section of my website: http://www.films42.com/columns/JUFN-5769.asp

*****

Jan Lisa Huttner (Tzivi) is the managing editor of Films for Two: The Online Guide for Busy Couples (www.films42.com). Send comments and/or suggestions for future columns to Tzivi@msn.com. Visit www.juf.org for online copies of prior columns.

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