Portrait of a Shiksa | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Portrait of a Shiksa


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Organic Lab Theater

"The Jews are hogging the Holy Land," protests Mama (described by daughter Adelle as a "born-again bee" because she's always humming hymns). Adelle herself is saucy and fun, always resisting her mother's evangelistic pressures, even when her mother cons her into a "honeymoon with Jesus," a church tour of Israel. There the blond bombshell explores her fascination with the alien, especially as embodied by a young Hasid she spies churning with a "wildness" at the Wailing Wall.

This is the first half of Portrait of a Shiksa, performance artist Sharon Evans's new piece at the Organic Lab. It's a sparse, lively presentation with terrific performances, ingenious use of language, and clever staging; but it suffers from a lack of transition and resolution.

The first half is ripe with humor, first as Adelle and Mama's relationship is played against the intentionally absurd trappings of Adelle's vocation as a wig stylist in a small Tennessee town, and then on vacation in Israel. It's here that Adelle first hears the word "shiksa"--a slightly derisive Yiddish term for a non-Jewish woman, especially a young one.

It's here too that she begins to understand the limitations of her horizons in Tennessee, and there's a tug of poignancy with each new discovery.

Not that Adelle is an ingenue, especially as played by Catherine Evans, the writer/director's younger sister. She's a sly fox, sassy and fully aware of her powers, if not of the limitations of her small-town world. The Jews who have taken over the Holy Land, with their curls and black hats, beards and davening, could be Martians for all Adelle knows. (It is a little hard to buy Adelle's surprise at the Jews' nearly sexual euphoria while praying at the wall, however, given the "wildness" that overtakes many fundamentalists--but then, that's the script's problem.)

Jane Morris, who plays Mama, is also wonderful. A sort of caricature resigned to her lot, but as stubborn as her daughter, she nearly steals the show with each appearance. When the play begins, Morris is rocking in her chair reading the Bible, her legs covered by a blanket with a quilted portrait of Christ, and when she lifts her eyelids halfway up (drunk with the Lord's blessing, no doubt), the audience erupts in laughter.

The second act, however, doesn't deliver half what the first promises. Although Sharon Evans's language is still savagely witty, cleverness can't carry the piece.

Part of the problem is Michael Raysses's performance as Ira, the fashion photographer and Jewish "secular humanist" Adelle encounters after she becomes a model in Chicago. Raysses, slight and wiry, doesn't have nearly the presence required to measure up to Catherine Evans. He gives the part a manic reading that seems more stand-up than theater. He also seems tentative around the photo equipment, undercutting the character's supposed arrogance about his profession.

But the real problems here lie with the script. It's as though Sharon Evans had created a wonderful little sociopolitical imbroglio and then simply couldn't get out of it. So, in part two, Adelle is suddenly, and unexpectedly, a born-again Christian. Although the script alludes to her mother's death, it's too simple an explanation for what had to have been, given the character we saw in the first half, a painful, revealing transformation.

There are some potentially fascinating scenarios posed by the interaction between sensual ex-sinner Adelle and the secular Jew Ira, but they go unresolved. The end, with a frightened Ira trying to make sense of his seduction, resolves nothing, is really just another beginning.

Set designer David Lee Csicsko deserves special mention. He did a lot with very little, and the plane scene--that was precious.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Scott Simms.

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