Maureen Keiller and Will Lyman have performed numerous staged readings of Oh God and their intimate knowledge of the text shows in their often nuanced, multi-leveled performances.
Oh God by Anat Gov, translated from the Hebrew by Anthony Berri. Directed by Guy Ben-Aharon. Presented by Israeli Stage at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA, through April 30.
By Ian Thal
On stage is the home office of a clinical psychologist: sunlight pours through a skylight, bathing the rug, the chairs, and throw pillows in a warm glow. Flora, both succulents and spider plants, hang suspended by twine in ceramic pots in the empty space of the black box theater. In walks Ella (Maureen Keiller) — named for the pistacia terebinthus tree, not for the Hebrew word for “goddess” — watering the plants as she waits for her new patient. When the client (Will Lyman) arrives, he is reluctant to give his name, offers to pay in cash, and unnerves Ella by his extensive knowledge of her personal and professional life. He knows, for instance, that she is divorced and has a sixteen year old son with autism who has never uttered a word. She is tempted to throw him out. Is he, she asks, a high-ranking member of the Shin Bet, the Mossad, or the Israeli Air Force? A celebrity artist? He answers in the affirmative, noting that he creates in “all spheres” (perhaps a sly pun on the sefirot of Kabbalist mysticism, which are often imagined as “spheres”). She doesn’t even get it when her request for a name is shrugged off with the answer, “I am that I am” – God’s response to Moses to the same question.
The witty banter goes back and forth. Audience members, at least those with a basic knowledge of scripture, are in on the joke. But when the client says that He is, in fact, God, things take an edgy turn. Initially, Ella is convinced that this client is delusional, exhibiting psychotic symptoms that are well outside of her clinical specialization. But after a minor demonstration of his power she is convinced.
Once Ella attempts to psychoanalyze God, playwright Anat Gov transforms comedy into an inquiry both mystic and tragic. God is depressed. He wants to die and to take all of humanity with Him. For some reason, Ella has been given a single session to talk God into staying alive. She is not the best person for the job: she is largely irreligious and does not keep kosher. But like most Israelis she is well educated in scripture. She reminds Him of His covenant with Noah, and thus, to all humanity, to never destroy the world again. God wonders if, after thousands of years, that oath has expired: there must be some statute of limitations given his disgust with what has gone on. There’s the blood that humans spill in his name, and the pollution and exploitation of the natural world.
In an interview, director Guy Ben-Aharon explained that he distinguished between Israeli scripts that address issues of the country’s identity and Jewish plays that are engaged with conflicts raised by Judaism. Anat Gov’s Oh God is of the latter variety; it is deeply engaged in Jewish ideas. Many Christians, as well as some atheists and agnostics who are tied to a Christian cultural perspective, might find the notion of a depressed Almighty seeking psychotherapy to be blasphemous or superficially amusing. But asking questions — whether the tough interrogatives are addressed to God or aimed at Scripture — is central to Jewish thought. It is about the search for understanding rather than undercutting faith. Questioning is not irreverence, but a creative or reparative act (“tikkun” in Hebrew).
Keiller and Lyman have been exploring their characters for three years. They have performed numerous staged readings of Oh God (see Helen Epstein’s 2013 review) and their intimate knowledge of the text shows in their often nuanced, multi-leveled performances: the comedy is never oversold, its delivery relying on subtle timing and inflections. But it is their ability dig into the play’s dark provocations that sells the second half. Keiller gives a nuanced performance: maintaining Ella’s professional composure even as she hints at the feelings (countertransference in psychoanalytic nomenclature) her client evokes in her. Lyman, meanwhile, is a God who is traumatized because he cannot break his promises to humanity.
Director Guy Ben-Aharon’s design team nicely draws out the play’s themes. Cristina Todesco’s scenic design captures the balance of order and chaos in Ella’s office — the sharp angles of the suspended bookshelves, the teeming unruliness of the plants and toys — float in a Black Hole-ish void. Charles Schoonmaker dresses Ella in vibrant reds mixed with black and earth-tones that seem to shine under Scott Pinkney’s lights. Sound designers Darby Smotherman and Skylar Burks place songbirds warbling beyond Ella’s skylight.
Ben-Aharon, who has been working with Keiller and Lyman on this play for some time, trusts his actors to interpret their characters. Still, he has made some notable choices in this adaptation. If the late Anat Gov (she passed away in 2012 after a long bout with cancer) had a dramaturgical failing, it was her tendency towards sentimentality (very much in evidence in her play Best Friends), which required her to end her play with not one, but two miracles. Ben-Aharon wisely says dayenu (“it is enough for us”) in this adaptation and only retains a tinier miracle. That makes the session much more ambiguous, suggesting that Ella’s encounter with God amounts to her own wrestling with faith. The uncertainty is a wise choice because it keeps the focus of this conflict where it needs to be: a dramatic stand-off that allows for both catharsis and tikkun — but that is also dedicated to ideas.
Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.