The Haggadah

by Barry Drogin

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Elizabeth Swados' "The Haggadah" is not a religious service, it is theatre. It is the telling of the story of Moses, from birth to death. It is performed in a small theatre-in-the-round setting, putting every actor in direct contact with each member of the audience. It is a philosophy, or theology as some would have it, and the conviction of each performer to communicate that philosophy holds the piece together. It is here that "The Haggadah" goes wrong, for there is no consensus: each performer is expressing a different philosophy, and the audience is left with scattered moments of preciousness.

One is tempted to say that these moments are well above anything else going on around town, but Ms. Swados deserves to be judged on her own level. What further clouds the issue is that people will disagree as to which moments these are. It depends on who you are; it also depends on whether you're Jewish or not.

I believe Ms. Swados has tried to please both factions, and in a piece of this nature that spells trouble, for it provides no central philosophy, or at least no sense of what Hal Prince might call a "concept." But contrarily I believe that Ms. Swados has foremost tried to please herself, that she sees herself as a mixture of Jewish and non-Jewish feelings, and that "The Haggadah" will therefore only fully "work" for those who accidentally happen to be like Ms. Swados herself. Of course, this bears no connection to the Seder, which fully "works" for all (or most) Jews and is a social phenomenon by which each family reaffirms its faith, with room for personal nuances. Swados' "The Haggadah" says, "This is Judaism," though many Jews will be tempted to shout, "That's not the Judaism I know!" And what is the non-Jews' reaction to the piece?

I bring all this up because "The Haggadah" is attracting a large Jewish audience. Perhaps it is actually intended for a non- Jewish audience, as the program notes imply, but then it speaks on such a high philosophical plane that it would appear that Ms. Swados is attempting to convert them. Here trichotomies break out between teaching someone, sharing an experience with someone, and moving someone theatrically via a common base. Oh, the complexity of it all!

The music: Ms. Swados has passed up an excellent opportunity to use the special expressivity of the minor scale, using instead her usual chanting style, with variations of slowed-down rabbinical riffs. Sigh! Also, will someone please cut "By the Waters of Babylon" and "Who is Like Unto Thee" --- what are a negro spiritual and a flower child sunshine song doing in the midst of this?

The cast: Good actors, but they have too much freedom. A lot of the staging was worked out in rehearsals: it shows, and interferes (especially bad are the actors' exercise gestures used to express each of the Ten Commandments. Sure, it's not what we expect, but it's so subjective as to be inaccessible). The big question: Can anyone but Swados direct this piece, and thus improve it?

The set: Indescribable. Costumes, masks, scrims, puppets, all by Julie Taymor. Will someone give her an award --- or create one especially for her? And then give it to her ten times?

P.S. Is Judaism ecumenical?

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Last Updated: August 4, 2007