Characters in the Flesh

Jewish Theatre Collaborative lifts “Davita’s Harp” from the page to the stage at Milagro Theatre.

“This is a strange story. It doesn’t have an ending. Are you listening?”

Walking into the intimate setting of the Milagro Theatre, I felt significantly unprepared. I was about to watch a production set around some of the most important events to occur in the last 100 years — material I hadn’t formally reviewed since high school. Hitler. Fascism. Marxism. Guernica. And on top of it all, I was about to watch a story discussing Jewish heritage in the context of the years leading up to WWII. It would leave me in the dust for sure.

And after watching Davita’s Harp, there was certainly plenty of dust to shake off. Davita’s Harp is the world premiere stage adaptation of the novel of the same name by the late Chaim Potok. It is not a full adaptation from the one medium to the other, as it retains the novel’s prosaic elements, where characters explicitly narrate the plot and their actions as they act them out. The set is minimalistic with the characters weaving in and around a small dinner table and thggree walls. And for the most part, it works. As Ilana Davita (Kayla Lian) says in the beginning, this story is a strange one and we shouldn’t expect it to follow a conventional storyline with a gradual buildup to a climax, followed by an intelligible resolution. Life does not follow a conventional plot.

Heath Koerschgen Kayla Lian and Danielle Weathers. Photo by Gary Norman.
Heath Koerschgen, Kayla Lian and Danielle Weathers. Photo by Gary Norman.

We are shown a family through the eyes of a young girl, Ilana Davita. Lian’s portrayal is sometimes endearing, oftentimes overwrought with screeching so the plot is fittingly confusing at times. For example, Davita describes meetings that her parents attend, where her mother says things Davita does not understand. Her mother, Annie (Danielle Weathers), talks about big “ideas” — there’s a whole scene where Davita’s parents attempt to define the word “idea” for her — like the mutual exclusivity of “capitalism” and “humanism,” while throwing around terms like “Marxist” and “proletariat.”

Davita herself, as children do, begins parroting her parents words, telling her teacher about how people like Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco are “fascists,” while the man called Stalin is a “well-meaning communist.” And as I confessed before, it’s been some time since I’ve reviewed these concepts in their historical context, so Davita’s confusion was partly my confusion. However, these concepts ultimately revealed themselves as all too familiar.

History recapitulates itself, whether or not we accept it. There’s plenty in Davita’s story for modern audiences to relate to. Not only is it clearly a coming-of-age tale, the story deals with stark class disparity, the search for cultural identity, gender inequality and, looming in the background, a rising political figure unwisely dismissed as a “clown who nobody takes seriously.” Are these not the very foundations of this presidential election cycle?

I don’t know how intentionally the parallels between the past and the present were laid out before us as such. What I do know is that ultimately, despite its cultural relevance and its poignant, tear-jerking insights into tumultuous cross-cultural family life, the play fell flat with me. Perhaps this, too, was intentional and perhaps it was not. This is not a comment on Chaim Potok’s original novel, as this story could suffer from the old book-to-screen (or stage) affliction of “the book is always better.” I can see Davita’s childish perspectives being much more relatable and believable in prose form, where we can actually imagine her as a small child, rather than an adult actress trying to emulate a child. The stage play, limited by reality, could not do justice to Davita’s supposedly vivid and florid imagination.

Does this mean Davita’s Harp fails as a stage production? Absolutely not. The Jewish Theatre Collaborative has been adapting written stories in their Page2Stage series since 2009 to celebrate the heritage and talents of Jewish writers. I had not been aware of the author Chaim Potok, but seeing this adaptation has piqued my interest in his work. Unconventional storytelling has always lent itself to the page due to its abstractness, and an implicitness that diminishes. It is diluted when an attempt is made to concretize it through actual visuals. Like quantum physics — think Schrodinger’s cat — trying to understand these kind of works is best left to the mind, where multiple images or states of thought are allowed to exist simultaneously.

Davita’s childhood is characterized by fantastical representations of reality, amplified all the more by her intelligence and creativity. Much is made of the concept of magic and the intangible, yet intense power of stories. And based on the characters’ spoken lines of narration, which I trust are lifted directly from the novel, Potok’s prose is undeniably beautiful and compelling. So while seeing these characters made flesh was a lackluster experience, the Jewish Theatre Collaborative has served Potok’s memory well.

Davita’s Harp is directed by Sacha Reich and presented by the Jewish Theatre Collaborative. It ends its run tomorrow, Saturday, April 9th.

By Michelle Hy

A Portlander born and bred, I'm a student on the homestretch of an Applied Linguistics degree at Portland State University. I'm living the millennial dream working part-time at a bookstore and deciding whether or not freelance writing is a viable career option. Fingers crossed.

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