- OnStage Associate New York Theatre Critic
In a new play by Nathaniel Sam Shapiro, a Birthright trip of American Jews interweaves with a mass suicide on Masada two thousand years ago.
Hannah (Serena Berman), one of the participants of the Birthright trip, admits to her BFFs, that visiting a Holocaust museum made her horny, and later jumps on her group-mate yelling: “We need to continue the Jewish people! Come in me!” Nathaniel Sam Shapiro, the author of Diaspora, rightfully acknowledges the alternate purpose of Birthright, a free “heritage trip” to Israel with matchmaking, but he takes it a bit too far. A disproportionately large part of the 90-minute production is spent by Jewish American youth discussing sex, contraceptives, and crushes.
In parallel to the young Americans’ trip to the mountain, Masada, the tragic events that took place on this historic sight on 73 CE unfold. Romans sieged Masada fortress, forcing 960 Jews to commit suicide. Shapiro is controversial to the official government vision of the mass suicide as an act of bravery. He condemns it as “decision made by a few powerful men” in his program note and ultimately makes two women who hid and escaped the mass suicide the new heroines of the story.
Rethinking a state’s political identity is no easy task; so is figuring out yourself in your early 20s. But clashing the two plot lines together seems forceful, especially in the scenes with rapid cuts between the past and present. The cast portrays both the participants of the trip and the citizens of the besieged Masada. Thin strips of video screens above the stage help to identify the time period and the character. Color-coded projections by Caite Havner and the rusted ledges reminiscent of the fortification walls (scenic design by Maruti Evans) elevate the entire production. They create a beautiful frame to the otherwise confusing and uneven production.
Costumes by Oana Botez are puzzling. Dressing Americans in all denim would be more appropriate for a 90s sitcom poster. Two actresses are wearing skirts so short that I physically felt how uncomfortable they must have been moving around. The over the top, caricature performances of modern day characters are contrasted with the “dignified” behavior of the ancient Jews. Actors, directed by Saheem Ali, deliver the majority of monologues, and even dialogues, facing the audience as well as staring at the back wall of the theater. The occasional “physical” scene comes as a relief from stillness but is often overdone. For example, some kind of “massage orgy” between the 1st century hero of Masada, Eleazar (Joe Tapper), and two of his accomplices, rabbi Binyamin (RJ Vaillancourt) and Reuben (Quinn Franzen).
Diaspora plays at The Gym at Judson, 243 Thompson Street, through December 23, 2017. The running time is 1 hour 45 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7, Wednesdays at 3 and 7, Thursdays at 3 and 8, Fridays at 3 and 8, Saturdays at 3 and 8, and Sundays at 3 and 7. Tickets are $55.50 - $79.50 and are available at diasporatheplay.com or by calling 866-811-4111.
Diaspora is by Nathaniel Sam Shapiro. Directed by Saheem Ali. Set Design by Maruti Evans. Lighting Design by Eric Southern. Sound Design by Miles Polaski. Costume Design by Oana Botez. Projection Design by Caite Hevner. Stage Manager is Angela Perez.
The cast is Serena Berman, Connie Castanzo, Ava Eisenson, Quinn Franzen, Tom McVey, Maggie Metnick, Joe Tapper, and RJ Vaillancourt.