A Jewish queen fit for the bard

In a nod to Shakespeare, a play chronicling the rule of Queen Alexandra will be performed tonight and tomorrow at Jerusalem’s Beit Avi Chai.

bard 311 (photo credit: Brian Negin)
bard 311
(photo credit: Brian Negin)
Queen Alexandra has a street named after her in downtown Jerusalem (Shlomzion Hamalka), and now she will be brought to life on stage in her former kingdom.
Thursday and Friday, the play The Maccabee Queen will be performed at Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem as part of the Stage One Amateur English Theater Festival.
Written and directed by Lauri Donahue, the play chronicles the rule of the last queen of Judea.
Before Donahue and her husband, Rabbi Barry Leff (chairman of Rabbis for Human Rights), left Los Angeles to spend a year in Israel in 2000, she was sitting in a movie theater reading Josephus’s The Jewish War while waiting for the film Gladiator to begin. During the wait, she read the portion of The Jewish War that mentioned Alexandra.
“I thought, ‘How come Shakespeare never got hold of this stuff?’” Donahue recalls. “It was so dramatic and over the top, it seemed very Shakespearean.”
Indeed, the play’s poster spells out a Shakespearean plot: “A woman of faith and courage, Alexandra survives two murderous husbands, civil war and foreign invasions to rule as the last queen of Judea – with the help of her ally, Cleopatra III of Egypt.”
During Donahue and Leff’s initial 2000-2001 stay in Israel (they made aliya in 2007), the second intifada broke out. The terrorist attacks endured by Israelis had an impact on Donahue while she was writing the play. “I was struck by the parallels of terror attacks that targeted women and children then and now,” says Donahue.
The Maccabee Queen references gruesome acts of terrorism inflicted upon this country’s Jews over 2,000 years ago by Ptolemy IX of Egypt. He invaded Judea, killed women and children and then ordered his soldiers to make soup from the victims’ bodies. In the play, upon hearing what Ptolemy IX had done to the Jews, Cleopatra III, his mother, says, “What courage does it take to kill a child?” and “He will not buy a throne with babies’ blood.”
In a nod to Shakespeare, The Maccabee Queen is written entirely in iambic pentameter. “Iambic pentameter is a remarkably natural meter to speak in – people will occasionally fall into it without realizing it,” says Donahue, who notes that a simple line like “What courage does it take to kill a child?” is an example of iambic pentameter.
Originally entitled “Alexandra of Judea,” The Maccabee Queen has been the subject of three staged readings but never a full-fledged production until this week. The first reading took place in Jerusalem in 2001. The play, published by Baker’s Plays in the US, was also read by actors in Vancouver and Cleveland, where it won an award from the Mandel Jewish Community Center of Cleveland’s Dorothy Silver Playwriting Competition.
Alexandra, who lived from 139-67 BCE and is mentioned in the Talmud and Dead Sea Scrolls in addition to the works of Josephus, will be portrayed by Danit Stemmer in this week’s productions. A graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, she has been in Israel since September.
Stemmer recently appeared in two shows at Merkaz Hamagshimim Hadassah’s Center Stage Theater, which is organizing the festival along with Beit Avi Chai.
Stemmer, also the assistant director of The Maccabee Queen, is the cast member with the most acting experience and training. Donahue’s husband and their daughter, Katherine Leff, are also in the play.
Donahue is surprised that Alexandra, the last Jewish ruler to die while Judea was still independent, is not as well known in the modern-day Jewish state as strong women of the Bible such as Deborah, Sarah, Judith and Miriam.
“While Alexandra is not a biblical figure, she was a member of the Maccabee family and is one of only two queens who ever ruled in her own right in Judea,” says Donahue. "She is quite well regarded by Josephus and is mentioned positively in the Talmud. Given that she is a figure who ruled in her own right and led a victorious army and is considered very virtuous and brave and so forth, why isn’t she a feminist icon here?” Donahue asks.
The Maccabee Queen will be performed Thursday at 6 p.m. and Friday at 12 noon at Beit Avi Chai (44 King George Street, Jerusalem). For more info visit www.themaccabeequeen.com. Tickets are available by calling (02) 6215900 or e-mailing tickets@bac.org.il.