Talmudic scholars and kung fu movie fans will both find something familiar in this singular hour-long hybrid by the eight-year-old theater company Meta-Phys Ed., in which four performers recite the verbatim text (translated into English) taken from a chapter of the ancient book of Jewish law, learning and commentary, while they dance to choreography inspired by decades of martial arts films.
Jesse Freedman, the artistic director of Meta-Phys Ed., and both a student of the Talmud and a fan of kung fu films, has said that he first saw a connection between the two about five years ago.
In several interviews I’ve read, he makes a reasoned case for their similarities. They both depict an ancient past, in which upholders of tradition must fight to defend their culture. He has even cited specific scenes from both “Shaolin Abbot” (aka “Slice of Death”), a Hong Kong kung-fu film from 1979, and “Canton Viper,” a South Korean martial arts film from 1983, that remind him of a story from the chapter of The Talmud he selected to stage.
That chapter is largely a series of tales told at the time of the Romans’ destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem some 1,900 years ago, although it also incorporates an indecipherable debate over ancient property law . (For Talmudic scholars: The text is taken from Bavli Gittin 55B-59A, translated into English by Adin Steinsaltz, who also clarifies and elaborates on the often terse original Hebrew and Aramaic.) The story that reminds Freedman of those martial arts movies is that of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai escaping Jerusalem, which “zealots” have put under siege, by pretending to be dead.
“When they arrived at the entrance of the city on the inside, the guards, who were of the faction of the zealots, wanted to pierce him with their swords in order to ascertain that he was actually dead, as was the common practice,” one of the performers recites, as the others dance. “Abba Sikkara [who was a leader of the zealots but also the rabbi’s nephew] said to them: ‘The Romans will say that they pierce even their teacher.’” The guards back off.
In “Shaolin Abbot,” a Shaolin monk is smuggled in a coffin out of the besieged Chinese city of Dengfeng. After their temples are destroyed, both the rabbi and the monk rebuild their communities in exile.
I have no doubt that some especially astute theatergoers will be struck by these similarities; the pairing might even do for them what it apparently did for Freedman, help elucidate an often elusive text. I’m sorry to say that I’m not so astute. While I enjoyed the storytelling, I didn’t experience any sudden illumination, and could discern little connection at any given moment between what the performers were saying and how they were moving.
I have to be content with the surface pleasures of this production — of which, luckily, there are many.
“The Talmud” amounts to an exquisitely eerie hour of theater. Verbally, it is at least intriguing; visually, it is beautiful, thanks to Freedman’s forceful and graceful choreography, the simple, gorgeous design, and an original score that Lu Liu performs on the pipa, a four-stringed Chinese musical instrument. Video projections grace the delicate white voile cloth panels hanging from the ceiling, above a floor that scenic designer Kyu Shin has cleverly turned into a chessboard, as if to emphasize the importance of intellectual strategy for survival during Talmudic times.
If it all seems a bit odd, it’s the strangeness of an adventure, a visit to undiscovered territory. In a way, I mean this literally. “The Talmud” was enhanced for me by its location at Target Margin’s Doxsee Theater, which is hidden among a row of warehouses along a abandoned-looking, darkened street in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Walk inside and suddenly there is light; there is theater.
Click on any photograph by Jenny Sharp to see it enlarged.
Meta-Phys. Ed. At Target Margin’s Doxsee Theater
Based on the Talmud and Kung-Fu films
Directed by Jesse Freedman
Compositions by Avi Amon, pipa compositions by Lu Liu and Avi Amon, scenic design by Kyu Shin, projection design by Lacey Erb, costume design by Karen Boyer, and lighting design by Yi-Chung Chen. Eamon Goodman is the sound designer, Gil Sperling designed the original video concepts and Joanne Au is the stage manager.
Cast: Lucie Allouche, Abrielle Kuo, Eli M. Schoenfeld, Jae Woo and Lu Liu on Pipa.
Running time: One hour, no intermission
The Talmud is on stage at Target Margin’s Doxee Theater through September 28, 2019