Reconsidering a King as a Lord of the Dance

By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 18, 2008

You might think of it as the original "Dancing With the Stars." The biblical book of 2 Samuel recounts how David, king of Israel, leaped and capered in worshipful jubilation as the ark of the covenant -- symbolizing God's presence -- progressed toward Jerusalem.

That scriptural episode has long fascinated Yehuda Hyman, a Los Angeles playwright and former professional dancer. With the gamboling-monarch anecdote at the back of his mind, Hyman found himself musing more broadly on the David story. The upshot is "David in Shadow and Light," a musical receiving its world premiere at Theater J. Boasting a libretto by Hyman and a Middle Eastern-flavored score by Daniel Hoffman (a klezmer violin virtuoso), the show runs through June 22 under Nick Olcott's direction.

"David" is a chronicle of the biblical hero, from his slingshot triumph to his exploits as army commander to the highs and lows of his reign over Israel. With a quarter-million-dollar budget, a four-person band and staging that runs to puppetry and other high-concept touches, the musical is the boldest, costliest and most time-intensive production ever for Theater J, according to Artistic Director Ari Roth.

The cast includes Matt Pearson (MetroStage's "tick, tick . . . BOOM!") as the young David, and Bobby Smith doubling as Saul and the older David. Will Gartshore portrays Saul's son Jonathan. Enlivening the musical's postmodern-frame tale (based on a legend from a midrash, a storytelling exegesis of biblical texts), Donna Migliaccio depicts the Archangel Metatron, who is screening a movie biography of David for Adam (Norman Aronovic), of Garden of Eden fame.

As this might suggest, the narrative approach is epic -- scratch that, cosmic -- in scope. Hyman and Hoffman think only a wide canvas can capture what is most intriguing about David, namely his inconsistencies: the machismo and the artistry (David played the harp); the piety and the sin (after seducing Bathsheba, he engineered her husband's death); the power and the vulnerability; the shadow and light.

"He embodies the best and worst of humanity," says the Tel Aviv-based Hoffman, who performed in Theater J's "God's Donkey" and "Shlemiel the First."

"Essentially he's a murderer, and yet he's our great hero," Hyman concurs.

Despite the musical's Cecil B. De Millean ambitions, however, it hews close to the intimate image that inspired it. Dance and movement -- choreographed by Peter DiMuro and Shula Strassfeld of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange -- permeate the scenes and help define the personalities.

"When you're doing a Yehuda Hyman play, the movement is always as important as the text," says Olcott, who co-directed "The Mad Dancers" with Liz Lerman herself. He cites, as an example, the characterization of the charismatic David. "When David dances, he infects others with his spirit and they start to dance."

That viral exuberance was on view in an April rehearsal, as Strassfeld -- a cheerful, willowy woman with long red hair -- coaxed the cast through a weaving, sashaying hail-to-the-king moment from Act 2. The actors pluckily tackled the steps again and again, coping with Hoffman's challenging rhythms. (The score, written for exotic instruments such as the doumbek and the zarb, often has seven or 11 beats per bar -- hardly commonplace in Western music.) "Our feet are going boop, boop, boop, boop, and our voices are doing something different," Smith explained gamely to a fellow cast member.

At one point, the choreographic sequence required the actors to reverse all their movements ("retrograding," in Strassfeld's terminology), to indicate that Archangel Metatron was spinning movie film backward.

"You guys are going to be such great retrograders, you can put it on your résumés!" Strassfeld announced brightly.

For the choreographer and her colleague DiMuro, circular and backward motions express the show's overarching yin-and-yang theme. "There is that dark inside of everybody," Strassfeld says, "and really Peter and I began from that conflict. Two sides of the personality -- and the sense that they keep turning."

While hinting at psychic complexities, the choreography also needs to suggest the possibility of transcendence. Dance "is a mystical thing," Hyman emphasizes. Raised in a Conservative Jewish household in Los Angeles (he first danced in Hebrew school, and later studied at the Brussels academy of choreographer Maurice Béjart), the librettist explored Hasidic tradition extensively for "The Mad Dancers," which landed at Theater J in 2003. It was based on a tale by a 19th-century Hasidic rebbe. "In the Hasidic tradition, dance and melody are worship," says the playwright, whose investigation of that religious legacy informed his "David" work.

The work has been four-plus years in the making -- much longer, if you trace it back to the time that Hyman first heard the neo-Middle Eastern-fusion ensemble Davka, and decided he had to work with its co-founder, Hoffman.

The duo originally conceived of their "David" project (officially commissioned by the Los Angeles-based Center for Jewish Culture & Creativity and Theater J, with support from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture) as a pint-size word-and-movement piece for two or three performers. But once they set to work, expanding the scale seemed both perilous and necessary.

A new musical "doesn't make necessarily for a risk-free launch," artistic director Roth says. (Theater J was obliged to cancel several previews, for the sake of fine-tuning.) This musical's subject matter is a further complication. "Whenever you're dealing with biblical figures, you run the risk of alienating the contemporary theatergoer, who isn't sure if you're presenting 'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat' or 'Jesus Christ Superstar' or a Sunday school lesson, or something that speaks to them in the most central of ways," Roth observes.

Hyman says he and Hoffman knew what they were getting into when they decided to ensconce their hoofin' David in a full-fledged musical. "I knew," the playwright says, "that we were jumping off a cliff."

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