Review: The Genesis Plays by The In[heir]itance Project: “The Leah/Rachel Play”
The Leah/Rachel Play forms part of a group of Genesis Plays by the collaborative known as The IN[HEIR]ITANCE PROJECT TEAM, led by Founding Artists, Jon Adam Ross, Managing Director, and Chantal Pavageaux, Artistic Director. Pavageaux notes in the program that the project “is committed to constantly trying new things.” The Bible, composed of many written strands, offers delicious, exploitable opportunities for contemporary artists, and this multimedia play offers an insightful documentary of the lives of sisters, particularly in its film segments developed by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and mother of daughters, Ilana Trachtman.
This interwoven drama, drawn from Genesis 29, tells the story of Jacob’s concurrent marriages to Leah and Rachel. The creative team weaves three strands of narrative, possibly four, if you count the music as a story. We follow the professor who has not only recently discovered an ancient papyrus detailing the story of Leah and Rachel, but also has become the father of twins; the film of the interviews of sisters; Jacob’s courtship and marriage of the sisters in the papyrus; and the music.
When entering the theatre, we’re greeted by musician Brandon Blake performing amplified mood melodies, which, surprisingly to me, most of the Sunday audience did not interpret as part of the performance, carrying on conversations despite his engaging style. A guitar gave way to the dual kalimba, a thumb piano, which was graciously offered to two well-behaved children to explore…Finally, the professor drew us in as the audience for his lecture.
The narrative offers some insight into the challenges of being sisters and raising daughters. Thought-provoking layers are connected through the story of a male scholar who discovers an ancient papyrus about sisterhood. He struggles with the irony that he, a man, has made this discovery while he wrestles with learning about fatherhood following the birth of his twin daughters. His “research” on sisters, constituted by Trachtman’s film interviews of girls and women in Seattle, form the larger-than-life core of this play on three screens. With candor, humor, and sincerity, they tell Sisterhood like it is.
There is much to enjoy in this complex adaptation of the Biblical stories of Leah and Rachel though some choices seemed confusing in a work that considers feminine identity — notably the absence of female characters in the dramatic strand of the play, which sometimes seemed to mansplain wives, daughters, and sisters under the guise of men sorting how to behave among women. Although the film does yeoman’s service in revealing what it means to be a sister, the play is pulled in different directions by the scholar’s understandable personal priorities. You will find the consequences of diversity in viewing this creation, directed with elegance by Chantal Pavageaux.
Jon Levin as the scholar and Jacob (also appearing in The Jacob Play), plus the musician, Brandon Blake were excellent and engaging, connecting well with the audience and drawing us into the action. Blake’s performance displays his specialized research into ancient instruments of the Middle East, including the African Lamellophone and thumb pianos.
The film of interviews with pairs of sisters was captivating and truly the star strand of the play. To integrate the many media, the creators drew explicit connections from segment to segment by repeating words or threading music or an image, but for all their careful creation of each part, the seams sometimes show. Still, the many moving parts are fascinating. Seating on three sides of the stage also promoted engagement along with the three screens on the simple Set by Deb O, where the few furnishings were used in varied ways. Stacey Boggs’ Light Design promoted smooth transitions between the segments.
The play runs only an hour, and it is part of a cycle, so my wish for more characters may seem greedy if we think about seeing all five plays in a day or across a week, but the separate worlds of this play are teasingly more complex than the playwright gives us. I missed hearing directly from the mother of the professor’s daughters, for example. Perhaps that’s Leah/Rachel 2.0 for another day. When we engage the Bible as a template, the good news is there is always more to create.
Ross and Pavageaux have engaged some weighty issues and high stakes experiments in their cycle of plays. It takes an epic imagination to re-envision the ancient writings for contemporary America. Ross has been quoted as seeking more than “transaction” in reading the Torah; instead, he seeks a greater “connection” for people who receive the stories. The plays were conceived in different cities, and the team enabled the participation of communities as a foundation for the plays — for example, the Seattle films in Leah/Rachel, gatherings in Charleston following the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church. These immediate events enhanced the connection of primary audience members to the realities of the texts, and these shared experiences can advance communities’ understanding of themselves.
The cycle of Genesis plays, which also explores the eponymous stories of Abraham, Rebecca, Jacob, and Sarah, runs through May 18 at the 14thStreet Y in New York City. Tickets are available at this link.
© 2018 by Deborah S. Greenhut, All rights reserved