This original, provocative and thoroughly engaging theatrical production, “Exagoge,” is a play written and directed by the award winning playwright Aaron Henne (LA Weekly and SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award) and artistic director of Theatre Dybbuk. It is based on the first-ever recorded Jewish play by “Ezekiel the Poet,” likely written during the 2nd century, BCE. This is a 269-line composition telling the biblical story of the Exodus in the style of a Greek Tragedy.
Seven actors of Theater Dybbuk (Rob Adler, Jenny Gillett, Nick Greene, Julie Lockhart, Rebecca Rasmussen, Diana Tanaka, and Jonathan C.K. Williams) make up the ensemble cast. Ten African American and Hispanic teen-age singers and a percussionist of the Harmony Project’s Leimert Park Choir in South Los Angeles (Musical Director is Ken Anderson whose choirs have performed at the White House, Kennedy Center, in London, and Copenhagen) sing the original score by Michael Skloff, composer, arranger, conductor, and producer of musical theater, stage, film, and television (Michael’s credits include the theme song for Friends, “I’ll Be There for You,” and, with his son Sam the music of the Netflix comedy series, “Grace and Frankie”).
Henne’s script is multi-layered and textured, and the action shifts back and forth from the Biblical era to the contemporary world. Moses is played by all the actors using a mask that they pass between them, and we hear Moses’ inner thoughts, conflicts, challenges, fears, and prophetic visions as well as the feelings, thoughts and perspectives of his Midianite wife Tzipora and father in-law Jethro, Pharaoh, and others from both the ancient and modern worlds including the struggles of Vietnamese, Mexican, Syrian, Holocaust era and Russian Jewish refugees who, though escaping the violence and oppression at home, encounter hardship, quotas, racism and discrimination in the United States.
The pull of nationhood and religion is fraught with tension when the characters consider their familial and tribal bonds and loyalties. The questions “Who am I?” and “Where/what is home?” are ever-present.
After forty years living happily and serenely the shepherd’s life with his wife Tzipora and his adopted Midianite family (the most open hearted and welcoming characters in the play), Moses returns to Egypt on God’s command to free his people. He remembers (memory is a central theme in the play) being pulled from the river, being raised in the Pharaoh’s palace, killing an Egyptian taskmaster, fleeing for his life to Midian, being taken in lovingly by Jethro and his people, becoming a simple shepherd, encountering God out of the burning bush, re-entering Egypt, escaping with his people through the Sea of Reeds, and slaying 10,000 of his own people by the sword for their crime of apostasy after the Golden Calf betrayal.
Moses loses many of his people along the way, as well as former dear ones who no longer are of his immediate world.
Tzipora loves her husband just as Moses loves her, but she resists leaving her tribe, family and children, and she challenges Moses and her father Jethro who together proclaim the virtue of human freedom but are dumb and blind to the subordination of women in tribal society.
Women play men’s roles along with the men, not the other way around. The identity of every actor shifts on a dime, and for 110 minutes you better be on your toes because the dialogue and exhortations are tightly and well-written, and rapidly delivered.
Exagoge is an intelligent play, one that makes you think and that pierces the heart. When I left, there was much to consider anew about both the ancient story of the Exodus and those same themes as applied to the contemporary world.
Michael Skloff’s music is haunting with no instrumental accompaniment except a rhythmic drum beat and the non-verbal singing of the teen choir. One of the actors suddenly breaks from her monologue and chants the Torah trope from the first chapter of Genesis creation story.
The visual effects and lighting in our Temple Israel’s new chapel, converted into a state-of-the-art theater as designed by Koning-Eisenberg Architects, are stunning, and the sound is strong and clear even for the hard of hearing.
The premier performance of Exagoge at Temple Israel of Hollywood was made possible by The Rosenthal Family Foundation and was produced as part of the Temple Israel of Hollywood Arts Program.
Creativity. Compassion. Connection. Community – These are the qualities with which a handful of entertainment luminaries founded Temple Israel of Hollywood in 1926. For almost a century, writers, actors, directors, artists, musicians, comics, craftsmen, agents, and producers have helped make Temple Israel a center for deep spiritual meaning, mass social activism and unwavering human connection – all infused with the greatest of artistic expression and creative talent. The TIOH Arts Program honors this tradition of service with continued presentation of Jewish arts programs for children in our congregation and across our city.