A bissel of this, a bissel of that

Eight productions with Jewish themes are among the eclectic works being featured in a NY theater festival.

Tatjana Maya 88 248 (photo credit: Johannes Galli)
Tatjana Maya 88 248
(photo credit: Johannes Galli)
Neurotic Jewish singles, an anti-Semitic poet and history's first female sinner are all preparing to take the Manhattan stage - separately, you'll be relieved to hear. Rather than appearing in the world's most convoluted drama, the characters will divide their troubles among three of the productions at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, a showcase of off-Broadway talent that kicked off July 13 and runs until August 2. If the line-up sounds eclectic, that's precisely the point of the festival, which this year incorporates eight works with Jewish themes among the dozens of participating productions. Now in its 10th year, the festival seeks a diversity of topics and styles in its schedule - a variety it has achieved even within the Jewish and nominally Jewish shows on the schedule. Among the first of those works to make its Midtown debut is Eve and Lilith - Adam's Temptation, a two-woman drama with roots in Genesis, just as its name suggests. But as Adam's first and second wives meet and get to know each other - a confrontation that never takes place in the Bible - audiences will quickly figure out that the show isn't a Hebrew school production simply transported to a bigger stage. "Eve comes to get her husband back and stays the night when she loses her car keys," explains star Tatjana Maya, revealing a plot point not widely remarked upon by the Sages. "You hear Adam's voice, but he never appears on the stage." Like costar Tricia Patrick, Maya plays both women over the course of the 75-minute show, which she'll perform six times during the three-week festival. Already staged on several continents, the production is the work of Johannes Galli, a German playwright who sees in his material a still-relevant division between convention and taboo, with Eve portrayed as Adam's conservative wife and Lilith as his incautious and occasionally imprudent mistress. "You see the strengths and weaknesses of the two women - neither is better than the other," says Maya, an Austrian-born actress who's performed the show in Spanish, English and her native German. (All the Midtown Festival shows will be performed in English.) "It gives you a new perspective on who you are - especially for women, showing them two parts that need to be expressed in their lives." TAKING ON an entirely different subject is Pound: The Poet on Trial, a historical drama that uses one actor but also casts its audience quite literally as a jury. In writer/director William Roetzheim's production, American literary icon Ezra Pound receives the trial he never faced in real life - confronting charges of treason for pro-fascist radio addresses delivered from Italy during World War II. An unapologetic racist and anti-Semite, the poet - a mentor and inspiration to figures including Hemingway, T.S. Eliot and James Joyce - spent time in a mental institution, but avoided criminal prosecution for his speeches, which Roetzheim incorporates into the play. "Some of his contemporaries hated him and some thought he was the greatest thing in the world, but everyone was associated with him in some way," says Roetzheim, whose show was performed earlier this year at New York's Emerging Artists Theatre. "The more I researched his story, the more I became fascinated with the different dimensions." Actor Jeff Berg, who plays the poet in the show, portrays six other characters during its 80-minute run, including the prosecutor, Italy's wartime propaganda minister and even Hemingway. But while the audience renders a verdict at play's end with the help of color-coded cards, no one leaves the theater without a vivid sense of the violent language that Pound - the brilliant literary mind - used against blacks, Jews and other minorities. "People have wondered why I didn't tone it down," Roetzheim says. "When you hear it on the stage, you just cringe. It's very offensive. But I think it was a very critical decision not to tone it down. If I show all his good points but only give a watered-down version of his bad ones, I'm giving a more historically favorable impression of him than he deserves." That said, other Midtown Festival productions are decidedly lighter in tone, including works like Pizza Man, about a 20-something Jewish woman who may find salvation in the titular Italian food - or in the guy who's delivering it. Sounds like enough intrigue for one production. It's a good thing the two characters got a play of their own.