“TO WOMEN & GIRLS WHO PASS THROUGH OUR NEIGHBORHOOD, WE BEG YOU WITH ALL OUR HEARTS: PLEASE DO NOT PASS THROUGH OUR NEIGHBORHOOD IN IMMODEST CLOTHES.”
That archaic admonishment isn’t part of an Amish advertising campaign, nor is it the latest salvo in Winter Park’s war on Fairbanks Avenue funk. Rather, it is a real-world warning sign found throughout the conservative community of Mea Shearim. This West Jerusalem enclave of Haredi ultra-Orthodox Jews is the setting for The Gates of Choice, winner of Valencia Community College’s 17th annual Florida Playwright Competition.
The protagonist of this new drama by South Florida resident Michelle Rosenfarb is
Mehira Stein (played by Kate McBryde in the production I saw), an 18-year-old bound for an arranged marriage with a scholarly schlub she barely knows. Her best friend, Libi (Katie McMillan), and parents (Brian Feldman and Carolyn Ducker) can’t understand why she isn’t thrilled to fulfill her destiny as a frum (religiously devout) woman. But a chance encounter with Ori (Buddy Fales), a secular soldier who escaped a similarly conservative upbringing, sets Mehira on a path outside the gated world she’s always known.
The standout performer in the cast is Feldman, whom you may remember from such surreal performance art pieces as Leap Year Day and The Feldman Dynamic. This is Feldman’s first onstage role as someone other than himself in four years, and though he insists that as an actor he’s “too comedic for dramas, and too dramatic for comedies,” he strikes the right note as a broken man, estranged from his parents over religious differences and on the verge of losing his daughter over the same.
Even with such a compelling premise, Rosenfarb’s script suffers a flaw common to novice playwrights: too many short scenes that cut to another location just as they are building momentum, indicating a structure better suited for film. Director Julia Allardice Gagne draws fine performances from the cast, but the sightline-slaying split-audience staging seems to be a perverse attempt at implementing Mel Brooks’ facetious theory of “Theater in the square! Nobody had a good seat!”
As a sporadically observant member of the tribe, I found Mehira’s dilemma intriguing, but I wonder if gentile audiences might find something lost in translation – and not just words like “Hashem” (God). Despite their disproportionate influence on Israeli politics, the Haredim fall far outside the theological mainstream, and their rigid ritualism has more to do with the social mores of medieval Eastern Europe than the words found in the Torah. I suppose every religion, no matter how assimilated and progressive, has fundamentalist factions that the moderate majority would rather forget.
And anyone, believer or not, can relate to Mehira’s meditations on choice – the unlimited options that this world offers us, and the limitations we impose upon ourselves to make that terrifying multiplicity manageable.
The question of choice continued to confront me as I headed out for last week’s Third Thursday. (How’s that for a segue? Professionals only; don’t try this at home.) There are the everyday choices we face whenever venturing downtown – burn precious petroleum circling for cheap street parking or bite the bullet and pay for a garage? – or the confounding choice most people made to stay away from what appeared to be one of the more sparsely attended evenings of art I’d been to yet this year.
What really compels me are the choices at the center of the creative decision-making process itself, the ones that begin before paint is set to canvas. For example, the choice to pursue art in the first place: 1960s singer Bobby Goldsboro, recently turned painter, debuts his Florida-centric oil landscapes at the Gallery at Avalon Island (through April 9).
The choices of message and medium: Erick D. Marquez’s Divine Intervention exhibit in CityArts Factory (through April 4) mixed spiritual iconography rendered in “acrylic, ash, and holy water” with a bold graffiti styling to evoke old-school NYC urbanism, while outside on the sidewalk Charles Keila was thrilling passersby with red-hot gooey glass.
The choice to endure, like that made by young artist Alexander Gussman, who enthusiastically evangelized his Pollock-esque paintings in the Paper, Paper, Paper: Back to Basics exhibit in the Eola Capital Loft, despite financial hardships that may soon render him homeless.
The most fascinating choice I witnessed that evening was at the Office Gallery & Art Studios, where Mark Biddle is showing off a series of multimedia installations mixing hi- and lo-tech (through April 11). You may have seen folks watching TV with their heads stuck in cardboard and duct-taped crates, or even caught a clip of Frankie from Apartment E and yours truly flailing in front of a green screen.
Nothing else quite compared to the act of artistic altruism committed by an anonymous couple participating in Biddle’s ethical/aesthetic experiment. Not long ago, Biddle took a framed print of one of his works and sent it out alone into the universe, giving it to a random stranger on the street with nothing but a note asking that it be returned to his gallery at 9:30 p.m. March 20. After passing through unknown hands, the piece miraculously reappeared at the appointed time, its custodians anticipating no remuneration beyond the gratitude of the artwork’s author.
To Mark, for his faith; to those strangers, for their kindness; and to anyone else working to inject more art into our town – to you, I say, good firstname.lastname@example.org