The biblical characters in Isaac, currently staged by Hidden Theater, dress as though they were in an Alfred Stieglitz photograph. Abraham and Isaac wear ill-tailored suits and clunky shoes, while Sarah wraps her head in a babushka and her shoulders in a shawl. These could be merchants from a thriving ghetto in Poland, they could be Yiddish-speaking American sweatshop organizers, or they could be singing "Ani Ma'amin" as they shuffle to the gas chambers. All this is to say that while locally based playwright David Schulner retells the biblical story of the binding of Isaac in his new play, he does so in response to the events of the last hundred years. The stage may look like an ancient desert, covered with sand and furnished with a single, metallic tree, but it may as well be the Warsaw ghetto or Treblinka. Indeed, Schulner opens his new play with Isaac cradling a lamb and speaking to it: "I will be there at the holocaust." A holocaust, he explains, is a sacrificial fire, and he is eager for it.
Schulner's Isaac (played by Bard Goodrich) is full of questions. He staggers after his father, Abraham (a gruff Ron Menzel), babbling at him with unaffected interest. He has an eager walk, cowlicky hair, and the attention span of a flea. "Focus is hard for me," he explains, before launching into another series of unanswerable questions. "If we are the chosen people," he demands of Abraham later, "what is it that we have been chosen for?" Isaac comes off as a precocious but frustrated bar mitzvah student, flinging his 12-year-old hand in the air every 20 seconds to ask the rabbi another impossible riddle.
Schulner offers no answers. Isaac is intellectually ambitious, which is commendable, but this production is more the staging of an unsatisfying intellectual exercise than a play. The characters weep, and sometimes they are so moved by their experiences that they drool onto the stage--most notably Annelise Christ as Sarah, who ends the play with her face drenched with moisture. Yet the characters remain little more than weeping, drooling puppets, as though this were some sort of medieval morality pageant in which each character represents a vice or a philosophical cant. At the same time, Schulner's pageant offers no religious instruction, only a cry of frustration. The biblical God Schulner seeks to understand in Isaac is unknowable, cruel, contradictory, and terrifying, leading Schulner's characters to startling pronouncements, such as "You are a Jew because you bleed for Him!"
Amazingly, Schulner ultimately lays the blame for the Holocaust at Abraham's feet, with Isaac condemning both God and his father. "You failed the test," Isaac says, weeping and drooling. "Think about the example you set!" There is poignancy in Schulner's attempts to understand a God that so bewilders and frightens him. Asked about God and justice, one character cries out, "Does He believe in it?" while another complains, "God watches over us, but who is watching God?" Perhaps, in the wake of the Holocaust, these attempts at understanding must end as Isaac does, with screaming, recriminations, and Aramaic prayers for the dead.
Chinese petty official Bau Juyi (772-846) was a poet of misery. In a piece titled "To My Brothers and Sisters Adrift in Troubled Times This Poem of the Moon" this Tang-dynasty poet wrote cheerless lines, such as "My own flesh and blood become scum of the street, I moan to my shadow like a lone-wandering wildgoose."
He had reason to be miserable. Bau Juyi spent much of his life fleeing wars and eventually was exiled because of his poems, which were often nakedly political. In adapting Bau Juyi's poem "Song of the Pipa," Theater Mu artistic director Rick Shiomi has retained much of the writer's bitterness. In this production Bau Juyi is played by Kurt Mattsen with a slight grin and a relaxed demeanor, but when a friend comments that sometimes fate can be unkind, the poet snaps back, "It is always unkind!" Although Bau Juyi later ruefully recants his statement, Song of the Pipa does make a case for the unkindness of fate, as Shiomi's play tells two unhappy stories. The first is his adaptation of the poem, in which the writer chances on a musician. Both share the tragedies of their lives and are moved by each other's artistry. "When I heard her story, it made me utterly forlorn," Bau Juyi intones sadly. These scenes have the formality and, occasionally, stiffness of those Asian soap operas that sometimes show up on the more obscure cable stations.
The play's second--and more ambitious--story tells of pipa player Gao Hong. Hong, a master player who resides in Minneapolis, suffered enormous privations during China's Cultural Revolution, and Shiomi parallels her story with Bau Juyi's. Gao Hong remains onstage throughout the performance, enveloped in a massive lotus flower while providing musical accompaniment on her pear-shaped lute. Her instrument narrates and comments on the action of the play, and the results are often enormously moving. In one sequence, actors re-create a scene from Gao Hong's childhood in which the Red Guard dragged her father (Bill Grau) into exile for such petty crimes as practicing traditional calligraphy. As this scene unfolds, Gao Hong's playing becomes a torrent of noise, nearly drowning out the voices of the actors in a cacophony of anguished, moaning sounds.
Shiomi closes his play with an evocative moment, as the exiled poet and the exiled calligrapher rise and together write the same words in the air. "It is funny," they write, "how one life can be turned upside down and inside out and still be the same life." These men are stoic in their misery, declaring things like "China has suffered, I have survived." They furtively turn their pain into art, and only Gao Hong's exquisite music weeps for them.