Queen Maccoby's tract examines the early years of the Inquisition with only moderate results. The Oxford-trained scholar should be lauded for bringing some much-needed historical perspective to the theater; however, the play falls flat, with only scant drama in an otherwise didactic, and biased, survey on the merits of Christianity vs. Judaism.
Queen Maccoby’s tract examines the early years of the Inquisition with only moderate results. The Oxford-trained scholar should be lauded for bringing some much-needed historical perspective to the theater; however, the play falls flat, with only scant drama in an otherwise didactic, and biased, survey on the merits of Christianity vs. Judaism.Set in Barcelona in 1263, the piece chronicles the true story of King James I’s decision to allow the religious leader of the Jews, Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman, to publicly debate Church rep and Jewish apostate Pablo Christiani on the plight of the Jews in Aragon. If Ben Nachman can be convinced to convert to the Catholic way, the King’s thinking goes, then so will the Jews and all will be happy in his troubled land. James I, however, has a separate agenda. He’s been recently excommunicated from the Church (for adultery) and the Pope has said he’ll only be allowed back into the flock if he can bring the Jews with him. As much as the King enjoys his sultry mistress Consuelo, he is won over by the rabbi’s arguments for Jewish freedom of religion. Maccoby weighs those debates heavily with sympathy for the oppressed Jews, but he certainly doesn’t give them much heft. Ben Nachman meets most of Christiani’s argument points with vague and evasive retorts. When pressed on specific references in the Talmud (the Jewish holy book) to the Messiah’s being born during the destruction of the Temples, Ben Nachman can only claim the story is a parable, not to be taken literally. Equally unconvincing are Ben Nachman’s distinctions between “binding” religious rules and “non-binding” ones, prompting even the sympathetic King to comment, “That’s a very strange holy book.” The play never really elevates to more than a shouting match, and thus loses dramatic value. The Jews are meant to win, but only in spirit. Maccoby has written 10 books on the Christian/Jewish debate. While dramatizing it might popularize the concept, it also cheapens it. The piece is forced to address deeper issues (i.e., whether Jesus Christ is the son of God) with slight discussions that ultimately go unresolved. That leaves the dramatic element withered, with no heartfelt consequences for any of the characters. Jacob Witkin pads stiffly about the stage as the conflicted King, giving a glimpse of his true inner thoughts only in the scenes with Bernard Kates as Ben Nachman. Kates is suitably rabbinical, pacing most of the time, his hands locked thoughtfully behind his back. Russell Pyle’s set offers a Moorish blend of white Spanish arches and brown walls. But the construct was clearly difficult for some actors who tripped over setpieces. Karan L. Kaufman’s costumes continued the Moorish color scheme with a medieval blend of brown and burgundy velvet robes. Such ho-hums are as much life as this play musters. By avoiding personal dramatic consequences for his characters, the bigger picture is muddied. The humanistic implications of the Inquisition are never shown within the context of the play; in other words, they aren’t dramatized. Monty Python was probably right.