Golda's Balcony literally starts with a bang. The first sound you hear in William Gibson's new play at the Manhattan Ensemble Theater is that of an explosion, one that threatens to rock your very soul. But, while it's surprising - and not a little terrifying - there's no need to fear. Golda's Balcony not only expands on the promise of the play's first seconds, but makes sure it becomes completely galvanizing, one of the most thrilling theatrical experiences in New York.
Still, while you can expected to be transported to another world for about 90 minutes, don't expect to be able to forget about the battles raging in our own reality; Golda's Balcony won't do that. It will, though, provide another perspective on the seemingly eternal life or death struggle between Arabian and Jewish people for land, life, and prosperity.
Gibson devotes Golda's Balcony to these events, but though he cannot avoid the requisite anger and bloodshed, he has made sure that they have a redemptive, rejuvenating quality that makes the play anything but depressing. He presents Meir in the early 1970s, looking over her current tragic circumstances and exploring the choices that have led her to a crossroads where blood lies in each direction. Yet Gibson reflects these events through a modern sensibility, putting not only the events of the past, but those of the present, in sharp focus.
Even though Meir died in 1978, her struggle - and the struggle of her people - lives on today, and is unavoidable given current events in the Middle East. It's impossible to imagine a more relevant presentation now than Golda's Balcony, and it's certainly difficult to envision a more perfect, captivating performance of Meir than the one Tovah Feldshuh gives in this production.
Feldshuh's is a performance of truly mesmerizing grace and force, investing Meir with enormous energy, courage, and humor, presenting a woman who gives everything she has to her people and their freedom, but who never lets their numerous defeats conquer her spirit. Whether facing the realities of the establishment of Israel, the frightening prospect of using nuclear weapons, pleading for aid from the United States, or watching her family break apart, the spirit of Feldshuh's Meir is truly indomitable, and Feldshuh's dramatic artistry is an unabashed pleasure to experience.
Though John Caglione, Jr.'s has provided some impressive makeup for Feldshuh, it's hardly needed; nor is Paul Huntley's fine wig or Jess Goldstein's costumes. Feldshuh's portrayal is triumphant because of the palette of emotional and dramatic colors with she paints every word, every expression, bringing out every nuance in Gibson's script. Meir's dry wit, true passion for her cause, and utter despair at the destructive methods she may need to employ to keep her people safe are all on display; harsh and unforgiving from one angle, sympathetic and heartbreaking from another. The other characters we see only occasionally - Meir's mother or husband, for example, or perhaps Henry Kissinger - are as brilliantly crafted.
The work of the play's director, Scott Schwartz, is no less important. He has done very strong work here, pacing and staging with almost choreographic precision the relentless whirlwind of Meir's life. Though he gets a great deal of mileage in establishing Meir's history from Anna Louizos's starkly-designed set and projections (courtesy of Batwin & Robin Productions) that help establish additional characters, locales, and events, the production would be equally arresting without the bells and whistles.
That's because Schwartz and Feldshuh have made sure that the drama comes first. Golda's Balcony, in their hands, is an almost seamless marriage of material, production, and performance. At times it's the very definition of theatricality, a universe that subsumes your breath and thoughts, where the smallest occurrences pack the greatest punch. In the universe Schwartz and Feldshuh have established, a glance, a single repeated word, or even a match being lit all can - and do - have near-cataclysmic implications.
If Golda's Balcony ends somewhat inconclusively, that's as it must be. Much like our situation, Meir's was difficult, with treacherous questions - and few clear answers - on the horizon. But one's search for meaning and a place in the world, and what the price of that is, is the primary message of Golda's Balcony, and one Schwartz and Feldshuh drive unremittingly and dazzlingly home.
Manhattan Ensemble Theater