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"Crazy Meshugga Hurricane Earthquake"
Reviewed by Paul Berss
"Crazy Meshugga Hurricane Earthquake" - sounds like a comedy, no? But in our little village of New York City, it, and a sister play, "Di Froyen," turn out to be skillfully done works about basically good people who are deeply hurt, damaged, and in need of help and understanding that they rarely receive. Presented by Theater for the New City, and acted by the New Yiddish Rep, both plays are set in the Hasidic community and sadly could be considered studies in rigidity, and lack of compassion and basic kindness.
"Crazy Meshugga Hurricane Earthquake" was directed by David Mandelbaum and written in English by Amy Coleman, who also gives a fine performance as Lenora Kline, a social worker engaged to look after the schizophrenic Hasidic Yossi, in another stellar performance by Andrew Hardigg.
One of twelve children, Yossi is an embarrassment to his family because of his illness, and has been sent to live separate from them. He is desperate for love and acceptance from his father, but that is clearly not forthcoming. Indeed, when Yossi was raped as an adolescent by the religious tutor Mr. Feinstein, his rather remained passive, declaring that the rapist would be punished in the next world. Yossi spends his time listening to music, asking people for a snickers bar, soda, and potato chips, repeating the same phases and questions, wondering if Pink would have sex with him, and masturbating. In his more lucid moments, he turns to the audience and expresses sensible and intelligent thoughts. A scene with Lenora and her sister reveals a great deal of hostility and unhappiness between the sisters. With Yossi, Lenora remains constant and patient, truly hoping to help her charge, but when he disappears for a few hours to go to the movies, she loses it and goes into a rant about her own lousy life and how all of her work with Yossi has been in vain. A distraught Yossi injures himself and ends up in the hospital, where a very regretful Lenora goes to visit him to apologize. The couple is then out of touch for three years, when Yossi calls to say that he's now in an institution but wants to return to live with Lenore. In the unresolved ending, no one has really improved nor changed.
"Di Froyen," written and performed mostly in Yiddish with English subtitles, is based on a true story that took place in the Hasidic community. Is it written by Melissa Weisz and Malky Goldman, both of whom were born into the Hasidic community, and based on the play "Women’s Minyan" by Naomi Ragen.
One by one, women of a Hasidic community gather when they hear that Pessa Leah (sensitively played by Malky Goldman) is returning home in the hopes of seeing her children, after fleeing two years earlier. The meeting takes place at the home of her newly married oldest daughter, who loves her mother but also harbors resentment that a "better husband" - the rabbi's son, for example - couldn't be available to her after her mother "deserted" and shamed the family. The other women are furious with Pessa Leah and reveal their feelings with rude, sarcastic, and accusatory remarks. Pessa Leah learns that she will not be permitted to see her children after all, and that her past letters and gifts were never delivered to them. As the meeting progresses, we learn that Pessa Leah had to literally flee for her life from an abusive husband, and spent time in a hospital after leaving. A few women continue their condemnation of Pessa Leah, feeling that they must accept their husbands' abuse and that their only solution is tell the rabbi about it. With the help of a Jewish secular social worker, Pessa Leah eventually convinces the women that she has been heartbroken to leave, but had no choice. In the end, the women see the dire situation from the mother's point of view and gather to take her to see her children. A brave ending, and hopefully one that would have a positive effect on the community.
Sadly, both plays are based in reality and shine a light on the dangers, even inhumanity, of one size fits all and pre-determined roles for both women and men. Such rules in any society may provide comfort and order for some, but both plays artfully show, with honesty and compassion, the unhappiness and out-and-out cruelty that can be caused by rigidity, suppression of independent thinking and acceptance of male domination. [PB]
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