Jews living in Paris during the silent screen era sort out their identities as they aim for fame
By DORIS RUBENSTEIN
The pivotal scene that illuminates the title of Twin Cities native Deborah Stein’s play, Chaplin: The Son of Isidore and Hanna Thornstein — which premiered at the Sabes JCC on May 2 — happens somewhere in the middle of the performance, although the audience has heard hints about it earlier. The three main characters are playing a game commonly known as “Jewish geography,” where the participants shout out names of actors and other celebrities and state if they’re “Jew or not Jew.”
Admit it, you’ve done it yourself dozens of times while watching the credits at the end of a television show or movie.
What does this game do to enlighten us about the play? First of all, and simply, it clarifies that Charlie Chaplin was not a Jew. Secondly, it forces the characters and the audience to ask, “Then who is a Jew?”
The main characters in the play are, indeed, all Jews living in Paris in the golden age of the silent screen, when Chaplin was king. They are all seeking fame in this still-new medium, but they each approach it — and their Jewishness — from different angles.
We first meet Agathe (Christine Weber), an assimilated Jew from a wealthy Parisian family who has some experience in the theater and ambitions for the silver screen. Agathe denies the existence of anti-Semitism in her society and is ambivalent about her Jewish identity, raising the eternal question of the modern Diaspora — Where to put the hyphen: Jewish-Parisian or Parisian Jew?
I couldn’t decide if this was an anachronism or mistake on the part of the playwright since Agathe lives in an era just after the Dreyfus Affair, and especially since Agathe and the French soldier share the same last name. Or is it intentional?
Agathe and David (played with high-metabolic energy by Brant Miller), a would-be producer-director recently escaped to Paris from the shtetl, initially share a passion for film as haute culture, which quickly evolves into a passion for each others’ bodies. Here the playwright draws heavily upon the stereotype of so many early filmmakers to create David’s personality. Throw in more than a little of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, and you get the character.
Just as Agathe begins to tire of David’s formulaic-but-lucrative melodramas, a new face arrives on the set in the person of Lotte. Lotte is a scene-stealer in the ancient tradition described by another famous Jewish writer, Theodore Dreiser, in Sister Carrie. And what a coincidence: Lotte is also a wannabe actress, still wet behind the ears from the shtetl just down the road from David’s old stomping grounds. Lotte changes the balance of power, talent and ambition among the three principals and leads them down an entirely new path.
At this point, the community must pause to thank the Guthrie Theater and the University of Minnesota’s joint BFA program for attracting Florida native Breana Jarvis to our fair state so that she could play the role of Lotte. While “Jewish geography” players would never put her in the “Jew” category, her delightful portrayal of this small-town Jewish naÃ¯f was a high point of the play.
Her performance made her the “Jewish Chaplin” of the movies that David directed and it is no surprise that she was the key to his success. Her talent will be the key to the success of many future productions.
David’s movies are silent and so are the two remaining cast members, Avi Aharoni as Max and Rebekah Mogilevsky as Lou. Both provide appropriate pantomimes as stand-ins and extras for David’s movies, and get a workout as actors/stagehands in preparing the stage for Erica Zaffarano’s sets.
The Sabes JCC gets a fair return on its investment in this commissioned work. The audience also gets a fair return on its investment in a ticket to see the play. They may not see Chaplin himself, but they will see at least one performance worthy of his legacy.
Performances of Chaplin continue through May 17 at Sabes JCC in St. Louis Park. To order tickets, call 952-381-3499 or go to: www.sabesjcc.org. Individuals requiring additional services to participate, should contact Anita Lewis, inclusion director, at 952-381-3489.