nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 3, 2009
Rat Bastards, Julia Pearlstein's contribution to the Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas, bills itself as "a new play on an old theme." That theme is the idiotic way that humans let their religious differences divide them, even inspire them to hate and murder one another. Pearlstein uses an old theatre style, commedia dell'arte, to present her tale, and mashes it up with a much newer style, from the Theater of the Ridiculous (where she began her career at the age of 17), to point up just how absurd and nonsensical prejudice and bigotry really are.
The story of Rat Bastards is appropriately convoluted, and runs along the following lines: the Jewish merchant Lazzario and the Arab merchant Aziz live in the ghetto in 17th century Venice, next door to each other (though a canal runs between their houses). Lazzario's daughter Davida and Aziz's son Aftab are in love. Lazzario's elder son converted to Christianity years ago. The Doge of Venice owes money to both Lazzario and Aziz, and so when the two merchants are kidnapped by Turkish pirates and held for ransom, Davida and Aftab decide to appeal to the Doge for help in rescuing them. Sometimes abetting but mostly undercutting these two are their servants, Smeraldina and Arlecchino, respectively; she is the wily, shrewd, and offensively racist soubrette while he is the bumbling, knavish and offensively racist harlequin of commedia. And, just in case that's not enough...bubonic plague is sweeping the city.
The plot serves two functions: to frame the slapstick shenanigans of Arlecchino, Smeraldina, and others (the two servant characters actually carry slapsticks on their persons, and use them frequently); and to depict the rampant anti-Semitism and anti-Mohammedanism of the Christians in terms so broad that our defenses against offense break down—sort of what Mel Brooks did to Nazism in the movie The Producers. Pearlstein's writing is funny and satirical and her ending is sharp and smart.
I attended the first performance of Rat Bastards, which probably accounts for the slowness in transitions between scenes—hopefully by now the pace has picked up, and the production, directed by Eureka, is serving Pearlstein's vision better. The show features a cast of ten, not all of whom seem entirely comfortable with its quirky style. Richard Crawford steals the show very thoroughly and deliciously in its second act as the Doge: he plays the physical comedy a hundred times larger than life, and he's hilarious. I also enjoyed Charles Geyer and Brian Mott as the elder Lazzario and Aziz, respectively; and Carol Lee Sirugo (as Davida) and especially Gregory Couba (as Aftab) get into the spirit of the thing vividly as well.
The sets by Philip Pearlstein include ingenious projections (on which he was assisted by Jason Robert Bell) that serve the show beautifully (I will leave their exact nature as a surprise). Costumes by Ramona Ponce are suitably outrageous, especially the designer shoes that Davida (and, later, Smeraldina) attempt to walk around in.
The moral of Rat Bastards is as old as many of the jokes contained within it, which is at once the point of the show and a sad commentary on how little civilization actually seems to progress. Mad deconstruction of sacred cows is as good a way as any to get people's attention, so let's hope Rat Bastards gets seen by lots of people who take its foolishness a little bit seriously.