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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Love Sick
Jewish Circle Theatre
Review by Eddie Reynolds | Season Schedule


Ofra Daniel and Cast
Photo by Cheshiredave Creative
"I met the watchmen
Who patrol the town;
They struck me, they bruised me.
The guards of the walls
Stripped me of my mantle.
I adjure you, O maidens of Jerusalem!
If you meet my beloved, tell him this: That I am faint with love."

Based on the words of this ancient Jewish text—the Song of Songs said to be written 3000 years ago as a series of love poems by King Solomon—we watch a ragged, bent-over woman dressed in strips of black as she is cast from the streets of long-ago Jerusalem, jeered along the way by passing, chasing women. As the wind howls, the crazed creature is surrounded by haunting, ancient music from flute and strings and the chants of women singing, moaning, "The woman was sick for love, even to madness."

And thus opens the Jewish Circle Theatre world premiere of Love Sick, a musical unlike most others, as one woman narrates mostly in solo her story of sought love while accompanied by roaming musicians, dancing/chanting women, a silent husband playing guitar, and a dream of a young admirer and his love poems. Ofra Daniel has adapted the moving, mysterious, often erotic poetry of the biblical Song of Songs to create this story of a young, beautiful woman, Tirzah, who first marries an older widower—a fish monger—and then begins to receive jasmine flowers and love poems each morning at her doorstep from an anonymous, supposedly equally young, lover. With Lior Ben-Hur, Daniel has written music that often sings in its timeless melodies as if from King Solomon's times—music that accompanies the lyrics she often takes word-for-word from the ancient text. On top of all that, Ofra Daniel stars as the young woman who does in fact become crazed seeking the elusive lover who refuses to show his face to her.

In modern Tel Aviv, Tirzah's story unfolds, providing a present-day backstory to how the opening scene's woman of long-ago could have found herself in the streets of Jerusalem wandering for her lost love. In the current-day setting, she roams in multiple layers of rags while pushing a grocery cart. Looking homeless and distraught, she is taunted by scarved women who harmonize about the "crazy woman in love" who only sings Song of Songs. As a clarinet player (Asaf Ophir) steps lightly among them, the women dance into the audience with white scarves flying as they tease the old woman, who now tells us, "Before losing my mind, I knew love—the greatest love, the divine love we all dream of." As the black shrouds engulfing her disappear, she is suddenly all in white and in the midst of her wedding to the fish monger, a man of few words whose "every utterance was of fish." Tirzah now sings in a frenzied, beautiful voice, with the sheer white scarves flying all around and her deeply set, dark eyes opened wide in expressions of mixed ecstasy and sadness.

And then on her thirtieth birthday, the sprigs of jasmine and the poems of expressed love begin to arrive on her doorstep. Playing from above on a long, zither-like, trapezoidal instrument of 79 strings called the qanun, Ali Paris becomes the voice of the poems and the anonymous lover. With a voice clearly of the Middle East, the qanunist's tenor notes evoke music that is exciting and erotic as the poems slide, glide and swoon about the atmosphere—all the time Tirzah reads the pieces of love notes floating down all around her. The more poems that arrive, the looser her garments become, with her long black braid of hair eventually unraveling to reveal a massive flow that spreads to her hips and becomes a steamy part of her increasingly sexual, seductive dance. As she gyrates and twirls about, largely ignoring the chanting gossip of Tel Aviv women, she sings, "I am who I am and will be who I will be."

Often present and watching her mid-of-night erotic dreams playing out on their shared, marital bed, her husband (David McLean) strums his guitar, looks with sad but loving eyes, and says nothing. In one of the most melodious sequences of the evening, Tirzah sings as both husband and the dream of her lover stand on either side of her. In breathy, low voice she intones, "He and my love, my love and I, dance to the music of shadows"—a number where she is eventually joined by the high-toned voice of clarity of her fantasized lover.

As her mind moves further and further from reality, the six-person band (scattered in various corners and often roaming about) reflects her mental state, particularly the sad, wailing clarinet of Mr. Ophir. Music director and arranger Yuval Ron has worked miracles in ensuring the playing of this score reflects many Middle-Eastern traditions—from Jewish celebrations to the calling of prayer from far-above minarets. The music is performed so admirably not only by the aforementioned Messrs. Ophir, McLean, and Paris but also by Patrick Kelly (bass), Josh Mellinger (drums), and Faisal Zedan (drums).

Erik Flatmo uses in his scenic design an urban-and-myth-establishing combination of a tall, metal-framed structure; a lone tree with leaves of papered notes; wooden packing crates that alternatively serve as platforms, drums, or furniture; and brightly colored plastic sheeting. Brendon Aanes sends in howling, desert winds as part of his sound design while Kate Boyd creates the mystery and loneliness of night and the starkness of daytime streets through her lighting design. Connie Strayer has created costumes that capture to the fullest the mystery, sexuality, and regional flavors of the story. Christopher Renshaw directs the ever-moving and flowing sequences of Tirzah's story with acuity toward eliciting a combination of harsh reality and elusive dreamscapes.

Threading throughout the telling are four women who watch with scornful eyes, join in fevered dances, and chant their own narrative of Tirzah's love and woes. Deborah Del Mastro, Aleksandra Dubov, Bekka Fink, and Regina Morones are ever-present in one form or another and are essential in bringing the Middle-Eastern mores, prejudices, mysteries and traditions front and center to Tirzah's tale of wanted love. The choreography of Matt Cole brings the air and feel of the Middle East (again both modern and ancient) to their and Tirzah's every move. The one regret of the production is that many of the lyrics—both those sung individually and those sung collectively by the four women—are too often unintelligible. The four women, like the two leads, should be individually miked for better clarity.

The eighty non-stop minutes of Love Sick pass all too quickly. The tale intrigues throughout and in the end, surprises. The music mesmerizes and brings both ancient and modern times into a blended concert that engulfs the audience. The words of the Song of Songs are like nothing non-readers of the Bible would ever expect to hear. The story they imply is one that audiences will long remember.

Love Sick continues in its world premiere at Jewish Circle Theatre through March 25, 2017, on the Second Stage at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View. For more information, visit jewishcircletheatre.com. Ticket box office 650-463-1960 Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. and Saturday-Sunday, noon - 6 p.m.


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