Theatre Ariel is approaching its 30-year mark in Philadelphia, but there’s nothing old about this Jewish theater company.
The 2017-18 season begins this month with the first of four salons, which takes form in the dramatic readings of Jewish-themed plays.
New this year with Theatre Ariel, said artistic director Deborah Baer Mozes, is that two of the four salons will partner with other organizations.
In January 2018, the third salon will partner with the Jewish Plays Project in New York, which often pairs with Jewish organizations across the United States to encourage and aid Jewish voices in plays to center stage.
The national writing contest picks top plays in each of eight participating cities, and Theatre Ariel is putting together its own Philly reading committee.
“We’re going to present them at the salon,” she continued, “and then the audience will take out their cellphones and vote on which of those three they like the best. After our four performances, we’ll have the Philadelphia winner.”
Winners from each city will have the opportunity to be chosen to perform and workshop with the Jewish Plays Project in New York this summer.
“I wanted to do something different,” she said. “Because of our significant focus on new play development, this felt like a really logical partnership.”
Theatre Ariel will also close the season in April 2018 with another partnership.
Mozes’ daughter, an avid podcast listener, got her hooked on Israel Story, in addition to many others.
Israel Story was started by a group of Israeli millennials inspired to create an Israeli version of This American Life. It features touching human interest pieces coming out of Israel, accompanied by a musical ensemble.
“I just started thinking that it would be awesome to bring their work onto the stage,” said Mozes, who has been directing Theatre Ariel since 1990.
She received the rights to some of the podcasts to perform as staged readings, which will take place during the State of Israel’s 70th anniversary.
Theatre Ariel will also make those short plays available for other organizations to use after their production.
In addition, the second salon in December is a new play by Theatre Ariel favorite Rich Orloff, Men Overboard.
“This is literally hot off the press — he just sent me this week the latest draft,” Mozes laughed. The play has serious notes but finds certain levels of “intelligent, witty and sometimes even heartbreaking” humor in dark moments.
It follows three generations of men in one family — three Jewish brothers, a politician, a therapist and a Buddhist monk; their forceful father; and the politician’s 13-year-old son — reunited at the youngest’s New York Bar Mitzvah.
Characters question the values of a Bar Mitzvah as well as what it means to be a man, and what is passed down from one generation to the next may not be best for the one that follows.
The dynamic impacts of generational traditions fuel the layered play.
Theatre Ariel is opening the 2017-18 with a play Mozes calls “powerful” and “a lens into a community we haven’t put a lot of focus on.”
A Strange and Separate People by Jon Marans exposes the challenges of being both Orthodox and gay.
Without giving away too many plot twists, A Strange and Separate People follows a married modern Orthodox couple in the Upper West Side.
The wife grapples to find acceptance in her community for her autistic son, and also struggles with her new attraction to a newly Orthodox man — who is openly gay.
Playwright Marans said most of the show centers around Jewish-related events, using teachings of the Torah to tie into the characters’ relationships.
Marans, who is not Orthodox, found his inspiration for this play many years ago when he dated an Orthodox man.
“I knew nothing about Orthodoxy at all,” he said. “But I actually started falling in love with the beauty of Judaism.”
Though his ex was extremely conflicted with his choices, Marans admitted he was fascinated by that internal struggle as a writer, as to what would be the tipping point that would make him suddenly have to figure it all out.
“He was adamant about not leaving,” he recalled. “I was fascinated about being between a rock and a hard place.”
The man still remains closeted in the Orthodox community today.
Marans’ nephew is severely autistic, so most of the play is very personal to him.
“Every single person in this play is in a certain way strange and separate,” he added, “that they are slightly separated from the community. … The gay [character] didn’t feel right being in his community. The Orthodox wife was very disappointed in some other Orthodox women who weren’t as embracing of their son.”
But ultimately, the play emphasizes how all three characters have a deep love for their religion.
“I’m not criticizing them,” he noted. “There’s a great love for Judaism, and that’s really what I wanted to show more than anything.”
As the play goes along, Marans hopes people realize the snap perspectives we make about certain Jews aren’t always accurate, and the audience sees who these people really are and what anchors them is their love for Judaism.
“It’s focusing our attention on another part of our community,” Mozes added, “and looking at some really interesting questions.”
Marans previously wrote Old Wicked Songs, which premiered at Walnut Street Theatre in 1995. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Drama.
The first Saturday night of the first salon is sold out, Mozes enthused, though the other dramatic readings of A Strange and Separate People are still available for Oct. 22, 28 and 29.
“Judaism is not so dogmatic,” Marans added. “There are passages where you have to just learn to open up your heart. Not everything has to be so black and white.”