Shticks and Psalms

Songs of Paradise mixes vaudeville, the Borscht Belt, and the Bible to hilarious effect

Most everyone knows the two masks of the theater: the sorrowful mask of tragedy and the gleeful one of comedy. Tragedy (or at least drama) is usually serious and "elevated" and therefore tends toward social acceptability: Because drama is serious, the society it portrays is to be taken seriously. Comedy on the other hand, is almost never socially acceptable, precisely because it doesn't take society seriously. Teetering on the edge of impropriety, mocking, disruptive, and impertinent, comedy has long been a mistrusted, even feared outcast, using laughter as a weapon against social conventions and expectations. Think Lenny Bruce, John Belushi, all the way back to Aristophanes.

For a current example of comedy's potential for sheer chaos, look no further than the Caldwell Theatre in Boca Raton, where a master provocateur, Avi Hoffman, is holding mock court with Songs of Paradise: A "Newish" Musical, a funny, tongue-in-cheek musical romp through the ancient stories of the Torah. The show features some splendid triple-threat performers, a bouncy musical score, and outstanding design elements. This comedy careens along with such dazzle, it's like an errant skyrocket: entertaining but also more than a little dangerous. The show celebrates Jewish culture but also manages to slip in more than a few cultural critiques, some intentional, others perhaps not. In other words, there's some very serious stuff in between all the shtick.

Shtick, that old Yiddish word, is the operant term here. Hoffman, who directs and stars, has adapted and translated Songs from its original incarnation as a Yiddish-language production, which was produced in New York in 1989 by the late Joseph Papp. That show, in turn, had its origins in the works of the early 20th-century poet/playwright Itzik Manger, whose broadly comic renditions of traditional Jewish stories used jokey contemporary references -- a style that is itself taken directly from the 16th-century Purim-shpiels, similar folk renditions of traditional Biblical tales. This form of comedy has long been regarded with more than a little mistrust by religious authorities but has remained a popular tradition nevertheless.

I feel a song coming on: Sarah, Abraham, and Hagar the huggable
I feel a song coming on: Sarah, Abraham, and Hagar the huggable

Details

Directed, translated, and adapted by Avi Hoffman. Book/additional lyrics by Miriam Hoffman and Rena Borow; lyrics by Itzik Manger; music by Rosalie Gerut. Presented by the Caldwell Theatre Company. Call 561-241-7432, 800-930-6400.
7873 N. Federal Hwy., Boca Raton

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Hoffman's current show features a blizzard of in-jokes and contemporary references. Hoffman plays Adam as a sun-worshipping tourist, replete with suntan reflector, clashing beachwear, and flip-flops, while Eve (Margery Lowe) is a shopaholic (upon her creation, her first line is, "Where's the mall?"). The snake in the Garden of Eden is a funky, sexy beast. Actually, this is a double role: Jason Field plays the Tree of Knowledge with green Afro hair for leaves, while with one arm he's also playing the Snake. Hoffman's Abraham is a Barcalounging nebbish who turns to meditation for relaxation (his mantra: "Oyyyyyyyyyyy") while Elizabeth Dimon, who returns to the Caldwell after her stint in Out of Season, plays Abe's wife, Sarah, as a long-suffering kvetcher. Hoffman plays Abel as an adult-size baby replete with an enormous baby bottle and pacifier, while his Potifar is a drag act.

In each character, Hoffman dominates the stage, a Hebrew Benny Hill, totally at ease with his audience. In one especially silly sketch, Hoffman plays the tricky Jacob, duping an inheritance from his dumb-as-a-post brother Esau, whom Field plays as an amalgam of Marlon Brando and Robert de Niro (in a flurry of jokes, this Esau references The Godfather, On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Wild Ones, and Taxi Driver -- and those are just the ones I caught).

All of this makes for some good-natured, harmless silliness. But though Hoffman's approach is innocuous, he's perceptive enough to respect the material he's working with. These tales are ripe for parody and satire, but at their root, they reveal a number of conflicting aspects of human nature, no matter how funny they may first appear. Cain's murder of Abel is played as a childish, impulsive act, but the subsequent musical number is about Cain's deep regret. In the show's most electrifying sequence, Sarah orders Abraham to get rid of his longtime mistress, the seductive slave Hagar (Lisa Neubauer in a very effective performance) and her bastard son Ishmael. Abraham is entranced by lithe Hagar's wild, sensuous dancing and balks. But caught between duty and desire, he sticks by his lawful wife and her son Isaac, banishing the heartbroken Hagar. The show focuses on Abraham's indecision and his awareness that he has failed to acknowledge his own son in Ishmael and that Hagar's children are destined to be the forebears of the Arab people ("From your seed comes the word of the Koran"). In the subsequent duet, Sarah sings a lullaby to her little baby while Hagar tearfully laments her own baby's unjust fate. That Abraham, the father of the Jewish faith, was also the patriarch of Islam is a Biblical irony that makes this sequence suddenly, vitally contemporary -- precisely the point of the Purim-shpielers, long, long ago.

Such obvious moments are rare in Songs, but they are there by implication everywhere: unsettling, dark reminders of ancient conflicts that remain unresolved. In addition, the show adds an array of other, perplexing, symbolic touches. The snake/tree is clearly portrayed as African-American. From such clues as the Afro hair, the bluesy music, and the snake's funky accent, this conclusion is hard to avoid. This dual character raps and breakdances, and his power is clearly sexual (Eve compliments him on his well-hung apples). References to black culture abound in the show, especially musically -- with everything from doo-wop to gospel given prominence. Some of this just flies by without comment, giving rise to the possibility that a lot of the show's iconography is inadvertent: In an Egyptian scene, Tim Bennett's set features four pillars shaped like the Pharaoh, except the faces are black-and-white photos of what appear to be mug shots (Bennett claims they are all photos of Hoffman). Or how about the Camel-cigarette logo that appears in Thomas Salzman's lighting? And why is Jacob costumed in full Germanic lederhosen? No reason -- probably.

When Abraham sings a rock number about his revived sexuality ("This Old Broom Will Shoot"), he works with a broom that turns into a gun -- which is painted like an American flag. He also wears one on his head as a bandanna. Is there an intentional connection between the United States, sex, guns, rock 'n' roll, and an armed Jewry? Or is he just referencing Bruce Springsteen? And when three angels come to Abraham to announce that he will be the father of a great nation, why do they have British and broadly American accents? Are we talking about Abraham or Ben Gurion, ancient Israel or the modern version? Such parsing of possible symbols may seem absurd, but in a show that makes meticulous use of the slightest topical reference, it's hard to distinguish when one reference has a point and another does not.

Still, the show's intent is more visceral than ideological. Good thing, since the entire story pretty much comes to a pointless halt in the second half. As with its source material, all these stories are in themselves entertaining and perhaps instructive, but they don't really hang together as a whole. In the finale, Hoffman, in an ironic gesture of blasphemous hubris, appears as God and comments that his book has been a bestseller for more than 5000 years. Maybe so, but he still could have used some editorial help and come up with a punchier ending. Thus, from a literary point of view, it's entirely understandable that when the Christians came up with a rewrite, they provided a big finish.

Hoffman and company bring superior performance gifts. Hoffman has impeccable comic timing and a great ease on stage. All can belt out a song and know how to wring laughs from their vaudevillian routines. Musical director Michael Larsen is somewhat hampered by the limits of his three-piece, on-stage ensemble and a rather routine score that seems more intent on echoing previous Bible-based shows than in exploring an identity of its own. Barbara Flaten turns in good work, especially with Hagar's dance, a memorable sequence. Bennett's scene designs are a delight. Using a traditional vaudeville stage frame (replete with "ads" for Noah's Animal Crackers and Burning Bush Heating Oil), Bennett brings in sliding flats and scrims to create a cartoonish, whimsical Paradise. He's backed by Salzman's wild light scheme, featuring psychedelic effects and some candy-hued tones. Estela Vrancovich's costumes are a delight, whimsical and inventive.

Hoffman and company should do well at the Caldwell, and you would do well to catch them while you can. The show is headed for off-Broadway sometime next year for what I anticipate will be a long and happy run. Amen to that.

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