Purim without the spiel

Purim without the spiel

Ancient villainy comes to life on stage

Director Paul Lincoln, on right, confers with music director Brandon Magid before the rehearsal. Photos by Robert Wiener
Director Paul Lincoln, on right, confers with music director Brandon Magid before the rehearsal. Photos by Robert Wiener

On a small off-Broadway stage, Mordechai, played by Mike Singer, tells his fellow Jews that despite what others choose to do, he won’t bow down or prostrate himself before the evil Haman who is plotting to annihilate the Jews of Persia.

In another scene, Queen Esther, as portrayed by Brooke Quintana, promises Mordechai she will save her people from Haman by marrying Ahasuerus, the king who was the villain’s benefactor.

These scenes, in rehearsal at the American Theatre of Actors on West 54th Street in Manhattan, are keystones of a new play, “The Queen’s Dilemma,” scheduled to open Saturday, one week before the holiday of Purim begins at sunset on March 11.

“This is a very serious play. It is not your usual Purimspiel,” said playwright Samuel J. Bernstein, a New Jersey native who resided in North Bergen and West New York before moving to Massachusetts several years ago. 

In an interview with NJJN, Bernstein said his work contains intriguing characters and ethical issues. As a weekly reader of the Hebrew Bible, Bernstein said he finds the narrative of Esther “extremely exciting because of the ethical issues it raises, including feminism, the dilemma of a woman who needs to make a far-reaching decision to save her people, and the need for Jews to face down the evil of Haman.”

While others involved in the production are not Jewish, they view Esther’s story as one of far-reaching relevance.

“It doesn’t feel remote,” said director Paul London prior to a Feb. 23 rehearsal. “Queen Esther is the moral conscience of the story. She is swayed so much by her loyalty to Jewish tradition and the Jewish people, and yet, she stands for all people in a tug-of-war of hate.”

Jonathan Mesisca plays Haman as “a politician who is so relevant in today’s times,” he said. “He is a hateful dude.”

But portraying Haman as purely evil “wasn’t that interesting” for director Lincoln, who envisioned a more nuanced character. 

“In our story, Haman feels threatened by the other people who are different than him,” said Lincoln. “We see that today in America. We tease Haman out to see why he is so afraid and why he thinks that killing Jews is the solution.”

Mesisca agreed. “We are dealing with the exact same issue right now,” he said. “People want to kill Jews. People want to exclude Muslims, Christians, gays. The question is, why do we hate each other?”

Mike Kinzer, who is not Jewish and played several small roles in the play, didn’t know about the holiday of Purim before he joined the cast, but he recognizes the story’s similarities to modern times. “It talks about the annihilation of a people and you see a parallel to that in Syria for sure,” he said.

Nicole Vande Zande plays Vashti, the first person in the story to defy King Ahasuerus. 

“I am not Jewish, but I grew up very religious so I can definitely relate to the beauty of traditions and family connections,” she said. “I see the danger of stereotypes when people are looked at as a group.” n


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