Author Archives: Aileen Jacobson

The Lilith Blog

November 6, 2018 by

Gloria Steinem’s Life, Onstage

 (L-R)  Joanna  Glushak,  Fedna  Jacquet,  Francesca  Fernandez  McKenzie,  Christine  Lahti,  Patrena  Murray,  DeLanna  Studi,  and  Liz  Wisan  in  GLORIA:  A  Life  by  Emily  Mann,  directed  by  Diane  Paulus,  at  the  Daryl  Roth  Theatre.  Photo  ©  Joan  Marcus.

(L-R) Joanna Glushak, Fedna Jacquet, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Christine Lahti, Patrena Murray, DeLanna Studi, and Liz Wisan in GLORIA: A Life by Emily Mann, directed by Diane Paulus, at the Daryl Roth Theatre. Photo © Joan Marcus.

As I entered a Midtown Manhattan building a couple of years ago, I spotted a slim familiar-looking woman with blond hair rushing out. Wide-eyed, I asked the two thirty-something security guards–one male, one female–”Was that Gloria Steinem?”

They replied, “Who’s Gloria Steinem?”

A few days later, I related my astonishment about the guards’ reaction to two other thirty-somethings–one male, one female–whom I know to be college-educated, media savvy and squarely in favor of equality for women.

They, too, asked, “Who’s Gloria Steinem?”

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The Lilith Blog

October 11, 2018 by

The Chutzpah of Sarah Bernhardt

6xfxanLASarah Bernhardt had chutzpah. This illegitimate daughter of a Dutch Jewish courtesan had already gained wide renown as the best actress of her day when she decided to take on an exceptionally high-profile, high-risk role: She wanted to play Hamlet. Not girlfriend Ophelia or mother Gertrude, but the Danish prince himself, considered by many to be Shakespeare’s most difficult and iconic character. 

It was a glass-ceiling-breaking move, one among several in Bernhardt’s career, and it inspired playwright Theresa Rebeck to build a play, set in 1897, around Bernhardt’s struggles. First Bernhardt had to overcome the dismissive skepticism of some men: “It’s grotesque. If Shakespeare meant for Hamlet to be a woman, he would have named the play ‘Hamlet princess of Denmark,” Rebeck has one critic protest.

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The Lilith Blog

September 21, 2018 by

A Forgotten Lillian Hellman Play That Deserves Another Chance

Set in a small town in Ohio and revolving around a workers’ strike at a brush factory, Lillian Hellman’s little-known play, “Days to Come,” was a resounding flop when it debuted on Broadway in 1936. Hellman, who had enjoyed great acclaim for her first play, “The Children’s Hour,” went on to even wider success and fame with her next play, “The Little Foxes.” 

But at the opening night of this one, her second-born, as she recalled in her 1973 memoir “Pentimento,” she stood at the back of the theater, sensed that things were going wrong, and vomited. Then she saw William Randolph Hearst and his six guests walk out during the second act. Bad reviews and a quick closing followed.

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The Lilith Blog

April 27, 2018 by

What Is a Feminist Audience to Make of Albee’s Anti-Semitic Matron?

Glenda Jackson in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, directed by Joe Mantello, at the Golden Theatre. Photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe.

Glenda Jackson in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, directed by Joe Mantello, at the Golden Theatre. Photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe.

Edward Albee often said that he modeled the main character in “Three Tall Women” on his adoptive mother, from whom he was estranged and about whom he never had anything good to say.

If it’s a revenge play, as some people have speculated, then he failed, though he presents the old woman with all her failings, including an anti-Semitic (and racist) streak. But the two-act drama now at the Golden Theater on Broadway is far more nuanced than that.

First of all, it is a terrific play and a terrific production, often bitterly funny about the indignities of aging. (I don’t recall laughing much, or hearing much laughter, during its 1994 Off-Broadway debut.) 

The play is also, it turns out, far more forgiving and understanding about the flinty, demanding and frequently imperious central character played by Glenda Jackson than the playwright perhaps intended. Or, more likely, he did intend, as he explored the reasons for his mother’s extreme discontent, to come to terms with how she treated him. And to allow audience members to come to their own conclusions.

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The Lilith Blog

April 12, 2018 by

How Feminist is the “Mean Girls” Musical, Really?

"Mean Girls" playing at the August Wilson Theater.

“Mean Girls” playing at the August Wilson Theater.

“Mean Girls,” the shiny new musical about high school cliques written by Tina Fey and based on her movie of the same name, concludes with some upbeat messages for teenaged girls: Don’t pretend to be less smart than you are to attract boys. Don’t try to be someone you’re not in order to fit in: be yourself. And don’t forget to be, as one anthem is titled, “Fearless.”

Wait a minute! Is this 2018? Why do girls still need to be told these basics? And this is supposedly an updated version of the 2004 movie, not a throwback. There are plenty of references to social media and a new nugget of advice: Don’t send nude photos of yourself over the internet, because boys will share them, though wouldn’t it be nice if they didn’t.

This apparent lack of progress can make a seasoned feminist’s heart sink. Has anything really changed over the last half-century?

The show, with music by Jeff Richmond (Fey’s husband) and lyrics by Nell Benjamin (who co-wrote music and lyrics for the similarly upbeat “Legally Blonde”), is hardly anti-feminist, and it could be seen only as a good-natured and often funny look at an awkward period in everyone’s life. But it sends mixed messages. The most envied girls at the high school wear super-short skirts, super-high heels and manes of glossy hair. These are the title’s mean girls, and who wouldn’t want to be like them? The musical is supposedly saying that no one should—but that is not the aesthetic or emotional message.

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Feminists In Focus

December 23, 2017 by

When a Woman Made Decisions at Washington Post: New Movie Tells All. Or Most.

The Post, 20th Century Fox

The Post, 20th Century Fox

“The Post,” a new movie starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks and directed by Steven Spielberg, could be seen mainly as a saga about the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers. Or it could be seen as a film about the workings of a newspaper—in this case, The Washington Post.

But, really, what it most feels like is a story about the evolution of a feminist, or at least the beginnings of that evolution. That emerging feminist is Katherine Graham, then the publisher of the Washington Post, a position that had been thrust upon her after her husband’s suicide. She had to make the difficult decision of whether to print contents of the leaked Pentagon Papers despite threats of criminal charges from the White House and warnings from bankers that the move could lead to her company’s demise.

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December 7, 2017 by

Your Jewish and Frankly Feminist Review of “The Wolves”

A scene from the Lincoln Center Theater production of "The Wolves." Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes.

A scene from the Lincoln Center Theater production of “The Wolves.” Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes.

Nine high school girls on a soccer team somewhere in suburban America are discussing, of all things, the Khmer Rouge, during the opening scene of “The Wolves.” This 90-minute wonder of a play is now running at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.

One girl admits to never having heard of the Khmer Rouge, a regime that murdered 1.5 to 3 million people before losing power in 1979.

“They’re like Nazis in Cambodia,” answers another.            

“But in the 70s,” adds another girl.

“That’s not quite…” chimes a third, before getting cut off, something that happens often as these girls chat without regard for finished sentences or thoughts. Menstrual blood and other topics are interspersed in their conversation, peppered with outbursts like “omigosh” and frequent four-letter words.

The part that stood out for me was that, confused as many of the girls were about world history, they used Nazis as their touchstone for defining evil. No one argued that point.

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December 1, 2017 by

Your Jewish and Frankly Feminist Review of “The Parisian Woman”

parisian woman photoA female nominee to chair the Federal Reserve. A male contender for a federal Court of Appeals position. A striving young some-day female president. And, at the center of it all, movie star Uma Thurman making her Broadway debut as Chloe—a conniving political wife doing her utmost to secure a powerful position for her husband.

“The Parisian Woman,” a snappy, entertainingly slimy 90-minute comedy that has just opened on Broadway, certainly has many characters and themes for a feminist to ponder. It’s set in Washington, D.C. in the “present”—yes, right in the middle of the ever-evolving Trump presidency.

While it makes no overt references to Jews aspiring to or attaining high office, that doesn’t mean there is nothing for Jewish feminists to gnaw on.

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November 13, 2017 by

Your Independent, Jewish and Frankly Feminist Review of “The Band’s Visit”

band's visit group shotKristina Lenk’s right arm floats, gracefully and magically, as she sings about memories, emotions and desires—not that the rest of her body or her lovely voice aren’t just as expressive in “The Band’s Visit,” the new Broadway musical about sweet and bittersweet encounters between Jews and Arabs in a tiny Israeli town.

Her swaying arm, however, seems to embody the complicated make-up of the actor’s character, Dina, a former dancer who, because of a romance gone bad that apparently derailed her career, has learned to “settle in” to a more constricted life as the proprietor of a cafe.

Dina seems to be happy enough, playing a central role in her community, confident, competent and in charge. She organizes her town’s response when an Egyptian band lands there by mistake, resulting in unexpected bonds. In Dina’s case, it also leads to revelations of her yearnings for a less lonely, more connected life. She embodies a dilemma that feminism hasn’t able been to solve: that of a strong woman who has made bold decisions but finds herself regretting some of them and reconciling herself to a life she didn’t choose.

The musical, based on a 2007 Israeli movie with the same title, had a highly praised, award-winning run at the Off-Broadway Atlantic Theater last December and January. Now, less than a year later, it has landed at the much-larger Ethel Barrymore Theater on West 47th Street, with an expanded though similar turntable set and most of the same cast. That includes the two leads, Lenk (who meanwhile took a starring Broadway turn in “Indecent,” about the scandal surrounding a 1920s Yiddish play, which can be seen on PBS’s Great Performances on Nov. 17, and Tony Shalhoub, who plays Tewfiq, the stiffly courteous leader of the hapless but grandly named Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra.

The qualities that helped make the earlier stage production so beloved—the quiet intimacy, fable-like moments, and oblique hints rather than blatant announcements of its theme—remain intact. Could David Cromer’s carefully calibrated direction use more briskness? I don’t think so, though a friend who saw the show for the first time with me thought it could—just a tad. It also makes virtually no mention of the discomfort that Egyptians and Israelis might feel in each other’s presence. But an infusion of global politics would require a wider lens than the one chosen by Itamar Moses, the author of the musical’s book, and David Yazbek, the lyricist and composer who wrote a glorious score that mixes Middle Eastern inflections with pop melodies and more. The show focuses more narrowly on the human interactions, with a wry humor that is also understated.

The tone is set with projections of simple words during the overture: “Once not long ago a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt.” That is followed by: “You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.”

The first scene, in an airport bus station, establishes how the band comes to visit an isolated town in the Negev desert. They are on their way to perform at the dedication of a new Arab Cultural Center in Petah Tivka  (a real city with more than 230,000 inhabitants east of Tel Aviv). But they take a bus to sparsely-populated (fictional) Bet Hatikva, which they pronounce as though it is written Betah Tikva.

Once they arrive, the townspeople—well, Dina and the two guys who seem to hang out at her cafe all day long—set them straight about the vast gulf between p and b. (The Israelis and Arabs speak English to each other, because it’s their only common language, though both groups speak English imperfectly and laboriously, putting an accent on an underlying theme of communicating between cultures.)

As Dina sings in a jaunty song, Petah Tikva is “such a city, everybody loves it, lots of fun, lots of art, lots of culture.”  Her town, with the fateful b, is “basically bleak and beige and blah blah blah.” It has no art or culture–and no hotel, either. She suggests (or commands, really) that the seven musicians and their conductor be divided up to board overnight at the cafe, at her place and at the home of the unemployed Itzik (John Cariani, who later sings a delicate lullaby to his infant son).

katrina lenk arm

Dina chooses Tewfiq as one of her boarders, and it’s immediately clear that she finds the band leader attractive, despite his melancholy demeanor. Or perhaps because of it. He seems as alone and unmoored as she does. She shares some of her longings in the song “Omar Sharif,” about watching romantic movies with her mother, one of best songs among many moving melodies. Dina’s “Something Different,” especially as rendered by Lenk and her arm movements, is another standout. Something does indeed bloom between Dina and Tewfiq, though not what you might expect in a musical.

This show stays mercifully free of sentimentality. It does have a streak of old-fashioned sentiment, though, such as a man identified in the program as Telephone Guy (Adam Kantor) who has spent every night for at least a month silently staring at an outdoor public telephone waiting for his girlfriend to call. He’s not as metaphorical as a fiddler on the roof, but he could be one of the inhabitants of Anatevka.  Late in the show, he sings a plaintive song, “Answer Me,” which the entire ensemble eventually joins in on.

That thoughtful tone, though, doesn’t mean the show is devoid of bright spots. It has many. For one thing, the band members often play their instruments on stage—very nicely and often rousingly, supplemented occasionally by a few offstage musicians. 

At Itzik’s  home, Israelis and Egyptians joyously sing a few stanzas of “Summertime” together, reveling in their common knowledge. The song sparks a recollection by Avrum (Andrew Polk), Itzik’s father in law, of how he first saw and fell in love with the woman who would become his wife. He explains the importance of music in the romance (“love starts when the tune is sweet”) in “The Beat of Your Heart,” a snappy ballad with a Latin infusion (“The Girl from Ipanema” is one of the tunes the lyrics refer to).    

In another upbeat scene, band member Haled (Ari’el Stachel), a smooth fellow who previously exhibited a mildly creepy side by ineffectually coming on to nearly every woman he sees, redeems himself. In a mellifluous number, “Haled’s Song About Love,” he gently tutors the awkward Papi (Etai Benson) in a roller rink on how to woo his date, Julia (Rachel Prather).

It should be noted that, except for Dina, there are no major roles for women. Itzik’s unhappy wife, Iris (Kristen Sieh), makes an impression with her frustration at having to take care of an infant all day and all night, but that’s a brief sequence.

However, the whole show belongs to Dina. And to Lenk. At the end, she says the words seen at the beginning: “You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.” But it was.

 The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.

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July 7, 2017 by

“Marvin’s Room” Explores Sisterhood and Caregiving

0264r2_Celia Weston and Lili Taylor in MARVIN'S ROOM, Photo by Joan Marcus 2017-1Why are women expected to be caregivers—for their children, their parents, and sometimes for other relatives as well—while men are not?

That is not the question being asked by “Marvin’s Room,” a 1990 play by Scott McPherson now making its Broadway debut in a beautifully calibrated and engrossing production. Nevertheless, the question may occur to women in the audience. 

The comedic drama, directed by Anne Kauffman, explores the relationship between two sisters who became estranged some 20 years earlier, when one stayed home to care for their dying father and his ailing sister while the other departed to pursue different paths, eventually becoming a single mother of two boys and a candidate for a degree in cosmetology, which she hopes will lead to a more affluent and fulfilling life. After the caregiver discovers she herself has leukemia, she reaches out to her sister and nephews as possible bone marrow donors, and they come to visit. The story is told with a lot of wry, absurdist humor about such subjects as awkward doctor visits, painful backs and encounters with costumed actors at Disney World.

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