Slouching Toward Jerusalem

The Loeb tuning for rehearsal looks like a huge barn before haying--empty, dirty and waiting for something. The audience and their energy are gone, but the actors and even the techies act as if it were opening night at the Bolshoi. One rushes in theatrically with a new costume, another stands deliberately at center-stage twisting and stretching in exercise, testing his voice at scream level, another bursts into song; even the stage hands on top of towering ladders are flamboyant and dramatic. Drums are pounding in the background.

Last Monday night Psalms for Two Davids was set for dress rehearsal and the Loeb seemed upside-down. There was no elevated stage, and a slice of seats had been uprooted and transplanted to the other side, facing opposite. For the first time in over ten years (apparently) a Loeb mainstage production was to be theater in the round. The floor was painted with bright concentric circles of color, and the set, still dormant and in parts, promised to be glitteringly enormous: it was clear that this was some monstrous extravaganza rumbling and shuffling, itching to rear up and come to birth.

One is too eager to call this upcoming play a piece of revolutionary innovation. As an actor said the other day, "There is no such thing as experimental theater anymore." But for the Loeb Psalms for Two Davids does not exactly fit neatly into a read-the-script-and-do-it syndrome of producing plays.

This goes right back to its origins. The writer, Joel Schwartz '66, who flew in from L.A. this week to advise this East Coast premiere, has a story about that. The rich and varied life of the Biblical David had always intrigued him, and when Schwartz was at the University of Minnesota as playwright-in-residence the idea took form: "We were sitting around when a friend of mine who was acid-tripping went into a wild impersonation of John Witchboy, the character in Richardson and Berney's Dark of the Moon. Like David, he was the sort of intense and spiritual person who, in talking to you, would look right into your eyes and make you feel like you were the only person who understood him, who he could relate to. Then he would turn, completely genuine, and make the next person feel the same way. He was like this with everyone." Soon afterwards, in New York, Schwartz began the play, using the legend and psalms of King David as a starting point.

The Loeb is billing Psalms as "a celebration in song, dance and ingenious blend of historical drama and psychological insight." On the surface it is a story set in the decadent court of Saul, with eunuchs, concubines and vicious intrigues; and later in David's court--cleaner but just as doomed. On a deeper level it is a philosophical statement on the meaning of faith, a grappling with the question of foreknowledge in an ill-fated life. If one got a flash of one's future, how would this affect the choices eventually made? A complex and sophisticated juxtaposition of two Davids, young and old, prepares a special meaning for the last line of the play--"Praise the Lord."


While Psalms has its tightly-structured side (the director called its parallel form "neo-classical"), it is also a work with room to experiment. The play has changed a lot since the first run when, at a college in Marin County where it played a sell-out run to standing ovation crowds, it was performed in Kabuki style and dress. Since then it has been a bit different at every run (this is to be its fifth). Here the genre is undefinable: some ritual-like dances and primitive-looking celebrations resemble an orgiastic Zoroastrean ceremony, others are solemn and formal. Schwartz, who says that his play works best when least Biblical in tone, is pleased with this.

The play is full of these eery vignettes: they mimic and echo the narrative, so that atmosphere becomes an organic force of its own. At times, as in the second of two graphic rape scenes, the incidents do not even exist in the plot, but are fantasy projections in the minds of the characters. This sort of thing often evolved naturally and novelly when director Ed Zwick and the actors tried them out. The rape scene has never been in the play before, and shaping and re-shaping--as in making use of the Loeb's opulent facilities to stage this play symmetrically--has produced a fuller involvement for all the people working on the show.

When Psalms of Two Davids opens this evening it promises to be controversial at very least. It is a spectacle that makes demands on its audience. The intricate kind of double-time scheme may puzzle some; the sex and violence, however stylized, may offend others. One transition in the action of the play simulates the passing of two years by a recitation of the Hebrew names for the months, repeated twice. The beginning of the play is a bizarre surging of voice and motion that rises to a fever pitch; some lines which sound strange at first haunt the whole work--they keep surfacing out of situations with a new significance each time. Many points seem to gape unresolved for a while until they suddenly snap into a coherent idea. Even last Monday new things were being tried. If the energy and tautness that the optimistic team sees as so crucial to the success of the production materialize, those who visit the Loeb this week and next, liking it or not, will have something to feel strongly about.

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