|18th c Italian Purim woodcut.Public Domain|
Last night I attended my first Purim spiel. This is a kind of play which is loosely - very loosely! - based on the story of Purim. Somewhere in it you have to have the characters - Esther, Haman, Mordecai, Ahashverosh - and at least a bit of the story, but otherwise, have fun and see what you can do with it.
This one was called The Lambshank Redemption and set in a prison, Oicatraz. Ahashverosh is the warden. He's a right wing Trump supporter and is always on on-line dating sites. Vashti is his head guard, rather too sweet and hipster to do her job properly. Esther, who comes in after intermission, is a much more efficient head guard who solves the mystery of the trade in smuggled Hamentashen. Mordecai is a wimp who still lives with his mother on the outside.
The Purim spiel is traditional and slipping in contemporary references is also a traditional part of it. It's an amateur thing too; this one had some cast members who have done quite a bit of amateur drama, including one who has been in CLOC, a very fine Melbourne amateur group that is anything but amateurish. Others are just members of the community who enjoy doing Purim spiels once a year. The girl playing Vashti was a VCE student and very good she was too; I think a professional career may be ahead of her. If not, perhaps at least a membership of CLOC! I remember a CLOC performance of the late much-lamented Jon English's rock opera Paris in which the role of Helen of Troy was played by a Year 12 girl, who was also impressive. Hopefully she went on to study at VCA!
It was a joyous production, everyone having fun, a cheeky script and well known tunes with new words. The cast could all sing, whether it was a solo or ensemble piece. There was a very funny adaptation of a number from the musical Chicago in which the female prisoners all tell the audience how they got to be in prison, and the narrator told the story in verse a la Dr Seuss.
The band, dressed in prison uniforms, was at the back of the stage and I noticed that the young drummer was a girl. She played quite an important role, as she had to play solo marches whenever Ahashverosh was about to appear and the scenes were being moved by the cast. When I rang my mother at intermission my nephew Mark was there. He said he knew that girl, she was fourteen and related to his wife! Small world, small community.
And it really was a very community thing. I arrived at about 7.40, twenty minutes before the show was due to start and I felt like the only member of the audience who didn't know most of the other audience members! There was so much delighted greeting of friends and relatives that I had to weave my way through to get to my seat. In the theatre, there was much calling out until the show started. Probably most audience members were friends and relatives of the cast, as is understandable. It's a tiny theatre. I think it holds about 100 seats at most.
Ah, yes, that theatre, the Phoenix. It's located at what was my own high school. I remember when I was attending Elwood High we had no school hall. Every year our parents were required to pay a hall levy. The year after I left one was built, a hall gymnasium. It burned down, much to the dismay of Mr Whitehead, an English teacher who directed all the school shows, which had to be performed at venues outside the school. There was a photo in the local papers of him standing looking tragic in the ruins. Well, it was genuine feeling, to be fair. I remember how he dreamed of having somewhere to do the school shows when I was there.
I'm not sure where the money came from for rebuilding, perhaps from insurance? Anyway, they built a beautiful little theatre in place of the hall and Mr Whitehead was happy again and it was called the Phoenix for obvious reasons. The school also got another hall/gym.
I believe the school makes good use of the theatre for drama and also rents it out for amateur productions. I hadn't been in years, though, since a production of The Crucible in which Elizabeth Proctor, victim of the Salem Witch Trials, washed the dishes in a green plastic basin.
Uh huh. Sad that it's the only thing I can remember of that production - not a tribute to the director!
Anyway, after last night I will definitely be keeping an eye out for productions in that theatre - and hopefully seeing next year's Purim spiel!