Penetrating, absorbing and funny exploration of Jewish identity

Penetrating, absorbing and funny exploration of Jewish identity

REVIEWER: Peter Feldman

‘Bad Jews’ was an outstanding success during its Cape Town run and now Johannesburg audiences have the opportunity to enjoy this mesmerizing production.
Joshua Harmon’s play is an acutely crafted piece of work, a bitingly funny diatribe which rudely exposes the complexities of being Jewish. A revelation in the play is how a modern playwright approaches the legacy of the Holocaust.

While many dramatists may display a degree of reverence and respect, Harmon tackles the sensitive subject matter with an irreverent wit.
The play focuses on four sharply defined characters; Jonah (Oli Booth), a placid and inarticulate individual, his rude and dominating older brother, Liam (Glen Biderman-Pam), a religios cousin Daphna (Lara Lipschitz) and a sweet, non-Jewish girlfriend Melody (Ashley Carine de Lange).

They have come together in a cramped New York studio apartment after the funeral of their grandfather, Poppy. From the start, the devotedly Jewish, self-opinionated, motor-mouth Daphna makes it clear that she wants the gold “Chai” which her beloved grandfather had with him during his incarceration in Hitler’s death camp.

This medallion bearing the Hebrew word for “life” symbolized his boyhood suffering and survival against overwhelming odds.
Liam, her obstinate secular cousin, however, has other ideas and intends to use it when he proposes to Melody. Sitting in the middle is Jonah, who states emphatically that he doesn’t want to be involved in the war of words which is about to be unleashed between Daphna and Liam.
Liam is completely detached from his cultural traditions and is determined to marry his non-Jewish, Barbie-like girlfriend who has unwittingly been plunged headlong into a family feud. All she wants is for them to all get along together.

Volatile emotions erupt and family secrets revealed as a lava of words engulf everybody, venom spewing from Daphna’s mouth and unleashing her true feelings.
What emerges on stage in the intimate confines of the theatre is a penetrating and wholly absorbing work where the constant wrangling is stoked by incendiary questions about Jewish faith, identity and the Holocaust. All three of the characters clearly idolized Poppy, who served as a major role model, but their actions manifest in different ways and are based on their attitudes to the Jewish background.
The South African cast, airing their American accents, is a pretty tight unit and under the deft direction of Greg Karvellas the play is beautifully nuanced and paced. Each of the players manages to command the stage, inhabiting their characters with depth and understanding. The only gripe I have is the play’s inconclusive ending.

The renowned Saul Radomsky has conceived an impressive set and the lighting design by Daniel Galloway and Benjamin du Plessis capture the mood.
Although ‘Bad Jews’ is a thought-provoking, in-your-face experience that will fire up debate and focus on what it means to be Jewish, it deals with universal themes of family values and traditions and can be enjoyed by all.

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Q&A with ‘Bad Jews’ director Greg Karvellas

‘Bad Jews’ was very well received in Cape Town when it ran there during the festive season. Do you think that production was a watershed moment in your career?
Definitely, though having said that I feel that every opportunity to work with a script as brilliant as ‘Bad Jews’ (and now Contractions at the Alexander Bar in Cape Town) is a turning point. I feel very lucky to have had the chance to work on it.

How do you cope with the stress of opening nights?
I try not to be nervous and just have fun and enjoy the evening. The show is going to happen one way or another and either people are going to love it, or hate it. A little single malt also helps.

Do you have any specific methods that you employ to get the chemistry flowing as quickly as possible amongst your actors?
I really believe that theatre is a collaborative process so I try and get the actors involved in the creative process as soon as possible. I like to encourage creative “buy-in”, so it’s not just an “arrive, stand there and say your lines” situation, but rather “let’s all get involved and find the best way to tell the story.” I also run a very relaxed rehearsal room where the actors feel they have the freedom to express themselves.