By Meta-Phys Ed.; Directed by Jesse Freedman
Produced by Meta-Phys Ed. and Target Margin Theater
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 9.28.19
The Doxsee, 232 52nd Street, Sunset Park, Brooklyn
by Matt Kiesling on 9.16.19
Lucie Allouche, Abrielle Kuo, Eli M. Shoenfeld, Jae Woo, and Lu Liu in The Talmud. Photo by Jenny Sharp.
BOTTOM LINE: In Meta-Phys Ed.'s The Talmud, presented by Target Margin Theater, historic Jewish text meets the style of kung fu movies in an aesthetically striking and energetic clash of ideas.
Of course the first thing that comes to mind when contemplating the densities of an ancient Jewish theological text is Chinese martial arts cinema. Oh, that’s not where your mind goes? Then you have yet to experience the energetic (yet occasionally overwhelming) sensory feast of The Talmud, presented by Meta-Phys Ed. and Target Margin. As you enter the large warehouse theater, the strong sense of style is clear as you cross the chessboard-painted playing space, passing performers in colorful costumes talking and preparing themselves behind rows of near-transparent white scrim curtains, all while a low hum of atmospheric music reverberates. What next proceeds is a vibrant 75-minute submersion into the dense legalese text of the Talmud (a theological book of law, history, and traditions) told through the genre of kung fu movies, an inventive idea that would make Tarantino beam.
This ambitious work moves at a dizzying pace, and combines new technology with traditional stagecraft to showcase a mix of striking choreography, dramatic lighting, and stirring music. The compositions of Avi Amon and the hypnotic pipa playing of Lu Liu create a particular sense of epic scale, and secure the genre of Chinese martial arts cinema. At times an iPhone body-cam produces some very cool POV visuals, which are projected onto white scrim curtains, to simple and great effect. However, this highlights an issue at the core of this production. While the body-cam is an inventive visual idea, it is unclear why it is being done. It's only ever on one actor—the one who seems to be the main leader/inquisitor throughout the many legalese discussions—but I couldn't discern any further significance, or figure out how the POV perspective interacts with the narrative.
Many things feel significant, or are indicated as such, but it is rarely clear just what that significance is. This muddiness, plus the non-stop nature of a design-heavy production layered with dense text, becomes over-stimulating to the point of focal exhaustion. The rapid-firing of names, locations, quotes, citations, and proverbs left me lost as to what was happening if my focus wandered even for a second. This ceaseless flood of information tends to bury the narrative lead, so despite the conviction of an ensemble of compelling performers, The Talmud loses the human element. Through a curse of abundance rather than scarcity, the moment-to-moment storytelling lacks clarity, to the point where I was unsure what was going on or what my emotional investment should be.
Scenes that lean into different narratives—such as the escape of a rabbi from a starving Jerusalem filled with dangerous zealots, or the Roman general Titus rebuffing God at sea—are better at hooking into the emotional drama than are those devoted to a discussion of laws or Talmudic interpretation. Yet there are also times when it seems the performers are fighting to be heard over the sound system while also fighting to deliver their heightened text with urgent speed. In order to present some of the Talmud’s linguistic nuances, the action frequently breaks away from a compelling story and transitions into a direct-address TED-talk format. This all makes the evening very cerebral, with not a lot of heart to carry us along.
Further, for a self-described kung fu-inspired show, there isn’t much martial arts movement. The choreography consist mostly of stylized poses, circling, and the occasional martial hold. The moments when combat choreography is interwoven with the narrative are effective, and showcase the storytelling power of the overall concept, but such moments are too few and far between. The direction and choreography is still interesting, and makes me excited to see more from the Meta-Phys Ed. team, but if you go, do not expect any extended scenes of fighting prowess.
If you already have a background understanding of the Talmud, or love the general style of kung fu cinema, this interpretation may prove playful and satisfying as it dives deep into both. However if you are coming in with fresh eyes, you may end the night feeling lost at sea.
(The Talmud plays at The Doxsee, 232 52nd Street, Sunset Park, Brooklyn, through September 28, 2016. The running time is 75 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Thursday through Sunday at 8, with an additional performance Wednesday 9/25 at 8. Tickets are $20-25 and are available at targetmargin.org.)
The Talmud is by Meta-Phys Ed., based on the Talmud and Kung-fu films. Directed by Jesse Freedman. Developed by Jesse Freedman, Sean Devare, Zixin Liu, Hui-shan Yong, Gabrielle Schutz, Rakia Seaborn, Neysa Lozano. Set Design by Kyu Shin. Lighting Design by Yi-Chung Chen. Projection Design by Lacey Erb. Sound Design by Eamon Goodman and Avi Amon. Compositions by Avi Amon. Additional Pipa Composition by Lu Liu. Stage Manager is Joanne Au.
The cast is Lucie Allouche, Abrielle Kuo, Eli M. Schoenfeld, and Jae Woo, and Lu Liu.