Review by BERNIE BELLAN
Is it possible to produce a play that tackles the tremendous pressure any individual deciding to undergo a gender transformation must feel in a way that is both fascinating, yet very amusing? Add to that pressure yet more pressure though when not only is that individual changing their gender, they’re also becoming increasingly drawn to an orthodox form of their religion.
Such is the storyline of Winnipeg Jewish Theatre’s newest production, “Narrow Bridge,” written by Winnipeg playwright Daniel Thau-Eleff – on now at the Berney Theatre in the Asper Campus until March 19.
Although I was somewhat familiar with the background to this particular play (having followed its long development process and the many twists and turns it took until it was finally mounted this year), watching “Narrow Bridge” in a preview performance on Thursday, March 9, left me thinking that the work that had gone into honing “Narrow Bridge” from simply an idea for a story that began 10 years ago into a play that is at once riveting, amusing, and highly educational has been well worth it.
The play opens with the protagonist, played by Elio Zarillo, who is identified as “Sholem” in the playbill, explaining to the audience that – at this point in their life, they are a woman whose name is “Samantha” (or “Shoshana” in Hebrew). (And, despite the antagonism exhibited by so many conservatives to the use of “they” as a pronoun in place of “he” or “she”, while watching this play it is totally apparent why a non-specific pronoun is perfectly appropriate for non-binary individuals. Still, don’t be mistaken into thinking “Narrow Bridge” is some sort of didactic lesson in gender politics. Far from it.)
Samantha is soon joined on stage by sister Naomi, played by Alissa Watson, and mother Elaine, played by Rhea Ekler. Naomi announces that is she going to be married in six weeks to her boyfriend, Kevin, who is about to convert to Judaism. The dialogue in the opening scene is fast paced and often quite humorous.
Soon enough the action moves to a local Orthodox synagogue, where we are introduced to “Mendel,” played by WJT veteran Harry Nelken. If ever there was a perfect fit for a local actor to play an Orthodox Jewish scholar, Harry Nelken is it. Not only does he look every bit the part of an older Orthodox Jew, when he offers dissertations on the Talmud, which he does from time to time through the First Act, he is absolutely convincing as a scholar.
Moreover, as much as one might expect that expositions on certain parts of the Talmud might be somewhat dry – to say the least, Thau-Eleff clearly has a deep understanding both of the Talmud and Jewish history. There is a recurrent reference to the “Sanhedrin” (which, as is explained in the play, was the Jewish high court in the time of the Temple) in “Narrow Bridge”, and although I myself grew up learning about the Sanhedrin, having attended Jewish day school, Mendel’s explanation of how the Sanhedrin worked is quite illuminating.
Samantha’s increasing fascination with the Talmud, strange as it may seem in our modern-day world, is given great credibility by the back and forth dialogue between Samantha and Mendel. Samantha puts her quest for wanting to know more about Judaism in the form of one succinct question to Mendel, that sums up much of what this play is about: “What does it mean to be Jewish?”
Does it help though to have a familiarity with the Talmud and Jewish rituals, such as which occur during Shaabat on Friday evenings in observant Jewish homes, in order to fully understand what is going on in “Narrow Bridge?” I’m honestly not sure. I would rather expect, however, that any audience member who is interested in learning about what would motivate someone who is not Orthodox to begin with to want to become Orthodox, regardless of that audience member’s own background, would find much of what “Narrow Bridge” has to offer quite moving.
As the play develops, a good part of the First Act is taken up with Naomi’s upcoming wedding – and Samantha’s clear reluctance to play a major role in that wedding, notwithstanding Naomi’s request that Samantha be her maid of honor.
Again, there are plenty of clever exchanges between characters – with many pithy observations brought forward. At one point prior to the wedding, when tempers are running high, Naomi says to Samantha – in reaction to something their mother has just said: “There is one thing you have to understand about Jewish families. Everything is a matter of life and death!”
The First Act ends with the actual wedding. Suffice to say it’s not a Hallmark movie wedding.
As we learn more about Samantha’s transformation into Sholem in the Second Act, we also learn more about much of the negativity within the Orthodox Jewish community toward gay, bi, and transgendered Jewish individuals who would still like to remain observant. Thau-Eleff’s treatment of what is a highly contentious subject within the Orthodox world is done though with the utmost sensitivity. There is no condescension in how he depicts Mendel’s refusal to accept Sholem’s gender transformation.
Ultimately, Sholem does find his place within the observant Jewish community – largely thanks to the constant encouragement and support of his mother.
“Narrow Bridge” takes on some very tough subjects – with its recurrent theme being a search for identity – or identities, as the case may be.
Each of the actors handles their role with great sensitivity. Sure, there are many laughs, but there is also a great deal of heartbreak. No doubt a play like “Narrow Bridge” will resonate most deeply with a liberal audience – Jewish or non-Jewish, but it would have a clear meaning for anyone who has either struggled with finding their identity – or watched someone near and dear go though that struggle.