Review: The Chosen (Moira Blumenthal Productions / Encounters@Shalom)

thechosenVenue: Shalom College (Kensington NSW), Aug 27 – Sep 14, 2014
Writer: Aaron Posner, Chaim Potok (from the novel by Chaim Potok)
Director: Moira Blumenthal
Cast: Anthony Darvall, Barry French, Gabriel McCarthy, Daniel Mitchell, Maeliosa Stafford
Image by Geoff Sirmai

Theatre review
The Chosen is the stage adaptation of a well-known 1967 novel of the same name. It features the friendship between two religious teenage boys in Brooklyn, New York. Reuven is a Modern Orthodox Jew and Danny is a Hasidic Jew, and the play showcases their differences wonderfully. Set against World War II and the subsequent revelation of the Holocaust in Europe, this coming of age story is a sentimental, and at times powerful, look at faith, family and friendship.

The script is eventful, with colourful characters and spirited dialogue. Moira Blumenthal’s direction creates distinct personalities that tell their tales with delightful clarity. There is a palpability that feels almost biographical, and along with it, an appealing gravity that keeps us engaged. A particular strength of Blumenthal’s is the seamlessness at which scene transitions are managed. Her use of space and actor positioning is full of flair in the negotiation of the script’s many short sections.

Performances are accomplished, although older members of the cast are quite noticeably stronger. The two young men are comparatively (and understandably) green, but both Gabriel McCarthy and Anthony Darvall show excellent commitment and focus. Daniel Mitchell as Reb Saunders, the spiritual leader of a Hasidic group is especially captivating. The role is a severe one, and Mitchell brings to it a pronounced sense of drama that makes for exhilarant viewing. The actor’s outstanding presence encompasses experience and confidence that lights up the stage.

Stage design is basic, but its elevation helps improve perspectives in a challenging venue. More ambitious is Alistair Wallace’s sound design, which helps manufacture a sense of time and place with creative use of music and effects.

There is a big emphasis on the father-son relationship in The Chosen, but both boys’ mothers are conspicuously missing. We do eventually discover that Reuven’s mother is deceased, but the juxtaposition of a heavily religious context with an all male narrative raises questions about the place of women in these families, and their respective cultural spheres. The story was created in the 1960s, but a production of the play today should take into consideration its skewed gender attitudes, and perhaps its relevance in view of this glaring omission. Nevertheless, this is a staging that speaks to our eternal search for the deeper meanings in life, and our never ending struggle to find political and spiritual peace. Chaim Potok’s text talks about the co-existence of two contradictory truths, an abstract concept that becomes convincing in this depiction of a pure and inspiring friendship.