Diaspora: A Fantastic Play Besieged By Questionable Content
I hate Masada.
I love the view at the top of Masada. I love davening (praying) at sunrise, watching the first rays of light peek out from the mountains across the Dead Sea as I say the Shemoneh Esrei. I love the archaeology of the fortress, the stories behind the various buildings, and the overall aesthetic that Herod was going for when he originally built the place in 31 CE. But I hate the slog down (or up) the Snake Path. I hate the unbearable heat in the late spring -- because apparently nobody does the hike at a more sensible time of the year. I can’t even stand the rickety cable car; it just feels a bit too precarious, even more so that the lack of guardrails on the path on the side of a mountain. I can pull up Google, search for “Pictures of Masada,” and probably get the same amount of aesthetic enjoyment of the archaeology and the sunrise from the comfort of New York rather than the effort and heat of the Dead Sea sun. And yet, I visited Masada one more time, for about 90 minutes, in a theater in Greenwich Village, in the hopes that this trip to the fortress would be some nice, clean, effort-free entertainment.
Diaspora, a new play written by Nathaniel Sam Shapiro and directed by Saheem Ali, tells two separate but intertwined stories - it follows a Birthright group on their tour of Masada in the present day, as well as the struggles of the Jewish fighters in Masada in 73 CE, during their last days before committing mass suicide rather than falling to the Romans. Shapiro makes the interesting artistic decision to have the scenes weave between the present day and 73 CE, rather than have specific breaks in between the timelines, made easier by the minimal -- to the point of lacking -- set design. This is also benefitted by having the actors portray multiple characters in both the present and the past, making the audience connect the story of the Birthright students to the story of the Jewish rebellion. From a purely objective standpoint, it works. I can stand back from afar and appreciate Shapiro’s vision and writing that went into what is ultimately a strong script with a lot of introspection. The weaving between time was, however, quite disorienting the first time it happened. Though I got used to the structure of the play, that feeling of disorientation from the jumps between time never fully went away.
Speaking of two different timelines, the scenes in ancient Masada were done much better than the ones in modern day Birthright. The dialogue was much less vulgar (more on that later) and contained nuanced discussion of Jewish identity, religious observance, and the place of the individual in the larger society, that were somewhat more muddled during the scenes set in the present day. I believe it was in these scenes that the actors who didn’t have much to do in the present day really got to shine, especially Joe Tapper, who plays the Masada leader Eleazar. Though Tapper doesn’t get a whole lot to do during the present as Israeli soldier Lior -- he does get an impassioned speech where he berates another character for supporting Palestine while not showing that same support for Native Americans, but that’s about it -- it’s the Masada scenes where he gets to show his leadership and attempt to control the people of Masada where he really gets to shine.
The acting in the play was great across the board. As I mentioned earlier, the actors play multiple characters -- mostly between the two timelines presented in the play -- and they inject each character with their own personalities and emotions, sometimes switching between them on a dime between scenes. The highlights of the show were Serena Berman, who portrays the reserved Hannah in the present day and the spiritually conflicted Chawwah in the past, and Ava Eisenson, who portrays Israeli soldier Or and Masada’s women leader -- and fierce traditionalist -- Achinoam.
The characters themselves, while well written and acted, were vulgar to the point of distraction, more so in the Birthright group than in the Masada rebellion. Talk of drinking, getting high, and past sexual encounters -- in more detail than I believe necessary -- are rampant throughout the play, which made me personally uncomfortable. I feel the need to mention that I have never gone on Birthright, so I have no way of knowing if this is representative of what a Birthright trip would actually be like, but suffice it to say that I would not have enjoyed those aspects of the trip. I did however, enjoy the political debates that erupted between the characters on the nature of Israel as a Jewish state, the treatment of the Palestinians, and the meaning of being a Jew outside of Israel. Yes, they were only surface level arguments, and I would have been surprised if the play delved deeper into topics that would require more nuance than possible to fit into a 90 minute production that also has to cram in discussions about past hookups between characters.
Did I mention that this play was vulgar? I think I did. Well, here it is again, because good Lord above this play is vulgar, to the point that I feel the need to write an entire paragraph reinforcing this point. It starts with a fourth-wall-breaking monologue from Birthright participant Olivia, played by Connie Castanzo, about what she really thinks about the mikvah process -- with no holds barred on what exactly goes on in a mikvah, mind you -- and only builds from there, culminating in a scene onstage between two characters that I struggle to describe in a YU publication. There are people who are comfortable with this, and they were among the audience that saw the play with me. To a certain point, I am among those people -- I can tolerate the occasional subtle dirty reference or two -- but Diaspora blew past that certain point within around the third minute of the play.
Objectively, this play is good. Great, even. From an empirical, technical aspect, this play was beyond flawless. The actors were all on point, with both their lines and their emotions, the lack of scenery fit the overall theme and presentation of the play. If I actually rated things in my reviews for The Commentator instead of word vomiting for several paragraphs and expecting the average reader to glean my thoughts from that, I would probably say that Diaspora is a 9, maybe even a 9.5/10. Subjectively, however, I cannot in good conscience advocate, neither in a publication such as The Commentator nor in an institution such as YU, to go see this play without personally knowing my readers’ preference for the subject matter. If I thought it was too crude for my taste -- and I consider myself on the more lenient side of YU when it comes to entertainment -- then I don’t think I can recommend it to other people in this community.
All the individual parts, from the acting to the lighting, are great. They’re a beautiful sunrise davening from the top of a fortress. But the content, and therefore the overall sum, are just too much of a midday summer hike up to get to those nice individual parts. And sometimes, it’s just not worth the effort. You can find pictures of Masada online.