Over the years, I've seen several excellent productions by Arizona Jewish Theatre Company. Their current show, a world première called Parted Waters, is not very good, and, sadly, it's a bad time to hit audiences with a mediocre play.
Like many other arts entities, AJTC is struggling with the effects of the current economy on discretionary entertainment spending as well as on charitable contributions to cultural organizations. And last season, the company moved performances from downtown Phoenix to the recently completed Paradise Valley Community College Center for the Performing Arts at 32nd Street and Union Hills. Their season subscribers have had to make an effort to travel up there, although AJTC's good reputation and skillful marketing have done much to maintain respectable audience numbers. [And I've learned, since I posted this, that the subscribers who have to drive farther now are actually in the minority -- more of them live nearer the new venue.]
Producing director Janet Arnold took the lead in commissioning Parted Waters, a work about crypto-Judaism -- the heritage of Jews whose ancestors converted to Catholicism during the Inquisition. As many as 30 percent of Mexican and U.S. Southwestern Latinos may be descended from Spanish Jews. It's a fascinating and relevant topic, and Arnold saw it as a way to make AJTC's programming better reflect our community.
The script, by New Mexico playwright Robert F. Benjamin, is still quite rough, despite having gone through several public readings over the past year. Writers are sometimes advised to discard their first chapter or first act, and I think that would have helped. I can't say whether the second act was much better, because I felt so abused and betrayed by Act I that I had to leave at intermission, which is a hard decision to make, believe it or not.
The dialogue is heavy-handed, generic, repetitive, and didactic. It sounded like the product of cursory study rather than what comes from observation of real people or any kind of interest in an issue. (I'm not saying the author didn't go deep -- just that it doesn't show.) Most of the first two scenes were, on the surface, about agriculture, local politics, and water rights. In New Mexico.
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The set is butt-ugly. Downstage, over the orchestra pit, is an area representing a rural irrigation ditch. The acoustics of this area are just terrible (I think it's lined with burlap); it was often hard to make out words. The ditch is also filled with genuine brush that gets hacked at with a pick and shovel by two of the actors, raising a cloud of dust that inspires quite a bit of geriatric patron coughing as it settles during Scene 2, which takes place in a sparsely furnished campaign office that also seems to suck sound away from the audience.
Scene 3 makes it even harder to care about or understand the four characters, but it did bring the play's first real moment of action -- about an hour too late.
I was also bugged by the vocal work of a couple of professional gringo actors playing Mexican Americans, but I'll admit my ear is probably extra-sensitive from spending most of 2008 working with a Latino multicultural theater. Still, I would suggest that a) it's better to use your own voice and skip dialect work altogether if you can't maintain an accent consistently and b) no matter how assimilated he is, a 10th-generation native New Mexican is never going to sound like Ben Kingsley.
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Nurturing new works of theater is a great thing for a company to do. It's exciting, meaningful, and refreshing for performers, producers, and audiences alike, and it helps build a vital, ongoing canon of literature. But scheduling a new work as part of a mainstage season and then not having resources to make it really pop is an unfortunate turn of events.
These things happen, though; I'll be back to see something else at Arizona Jewish Theatre Company, and I hope you'll join me. (Or if you're really brave, catch Act II of Parted Waters and let me know how it was.)
Parted Waters runs through Saturday, March 29, at the Center for the Performing Arts at Paradise Valley Community College, 18401 North 32nd Street. For tickets, $15 to $40, click here or call 602-264-0402.
Latino Perspectives magazine is co-hosting a special reception and discounted admission to the show this Friday evening, March 20.