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Chalom: A Dream Opera

nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
August 16, 2012

When the lights went down to start Chalom: A Dream Opera, I had just read this quote on the program cover: "One who has sex with his sister in a dream should expect wisdom. - (Berakhot 57a, Babylonian Talmud)"   Then came the announcement that all ritual objects used in the performance are simulated.  Writer/Composer/Translator Bronwen Mullin, Director Jesse Freedman, and Choreographer Sydney Schiff had set the stage for a potentially beautiful and disturbing look at Jewish learning and longing.  I never thought I would see such a show, and I'm very glad I did.

It seems like a typical, orderly Jewish house of learning,  but it is not.  For one thing, you would expect only male students but the students/dancers are played by cross-dressing women: Sarah Zielinski and Sydney Schiff.  Anna Schon (Wisdom) is a bit of a free spirit who dances throughout.    John Michael Swarz plays cello while an uncredited pianist plays percussive, experimental music.  This is another suggestion that the external reality does not match what the characters are feeling inside.  Porsche McGovern's beautiful lighting design gives more clues as to these contrasts.

After the first musical interlude, the Brother (Jordan Ungerer), Sister (Eliana Kissner), Rabbi (Zachary Spiegel) and Mother (Lauren Savitz) sing in Hebrew or Aramaic, their words drawn from prayers like Etz Chaiim (It is a Tree of Life), the passionate Song of Songs, and much else that can get to the heart of the matter (love, wisdom).  Also important are Talmudic views of dream interpretation.   When it comes time for the Brother to dream, it is of his Sister.  He sees his sister's longing to put on tefillin (phylacteries) and mistakes her desire to praise the almighty for a sexual desire for him.  Since the references to dreaming about tefillin and dreaming about one's sister are right next to each other in the Talmud, and given the mystical language in the Song of Songs "thou hast ravished my heart my sister my bride", Bronwen Mullin (a rabbinical student at Jewish Theological Seminary) daringly asks what the texts mean when taken together.   The result is moving, artistic, as well as educational.  Perhaps there are more questions than answers; this is my idea of good theater and may be yours, too.  Judging from the audience, the piece has an appeal for religious Jews (probably the reason for the disclaimer at the start) but the style of presentation is purposefully universal and accessible to anyone.  The entire ensemble is to be applauded for the risks taken here.  If, as Rabbi Chisda said "A dream that is not explained is like a letter that isn't read" it is time to bring the subconscious out into the open.