One of the main attractions of Sarasota for us has always been its rich and varied array of cultural activities. The first time we came to the city twenty years ago for a week-long stay, we bought tickets to the current production at Sarasota Opera, wandered through one of the arts and crafts fairs that occur nearly every weekend, and marveled at the number of professional theatre companies supported by a relatively small community.
Since then, the number of local cultural organizations has expanded impressively, and the quality of the performances has improved by the year. The Sarasota Opera, Sarasota Orchestra, and Sarasota Ballet are highly professional and well regarded. The Florida Studio Theatre, the Asolo Repertory Theatre, and the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre present a full schedule of plays, and not just during the traditional winter tourist season. Three very successful community theatres, The Players, the Venice Community Theatre, and the Manatee Players, regularly compete for — and win — national awards. The Sarasota Music Festival in June attracts aspiring young artists from around the world, as does the Itzak Perlman program for young musicians in January. Mikhail Baryshnikov partners with a local organization to present an international dance, art, theatre, and music festival each October.
So it’s not difficult for us to look at our calendar and discover that we have tickets to two or three events in a single week, which is what happened this past week: a matinee at the Asolo on Thursday, an orchestra concert on Friday evening, another Asolo matinee on Saturday, and a Florida Studio Theatre Cabaret show on Sunday afternoon. All four performances were exceptional, but in this post I wanted to focus on the two plays we saw at the Asolo Rep: God of Carnage and Yentl.
God of Carnage was written in French and originally set in a Paris apartment, but it works beautifully in translation and relocated to New York City. The play won a Tony award during its New York run (no surprises there) and is described as a dark comedy. Two well-to-do couples arrange to meet at the apartment of one of them to discuss how to deal with the consequences of a playground fight between their eleven-year-old sons. The play is short, just over an hour long, and is performed without intermission. During the course of the play, the characters’ civilized veneer begins to fracture and flake away as they reveal more and more about their real agendas, fueled in part by the consumption of a bottle of very good rum. The antagonisms build, both between the two couples and within each married pair, even while one of the women struggles desperately to hold onto what she views as proper behavior. But, as one of the characters says, we are all still primitive, amoral creatures at the core, and the “God of Carnage” of the title is Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw.”
Despite the very serious themes at the heart of the play, though, it is very, very funny. The dialogue is clever and witty, and the physical comedy is laugh-out-loud hilarious. If you’ve never seen the play and have the chance, give yourself a treat and buy a ticket.
One of the ways Gerry and I decide the merit of a play or a movie is how much we talk about it after we’ve seen it. Sometimes we’ll leave the theatre saying we didn’t like it much, but we’ll find ourselves returning to it in conversation over the next few days and eventually decide that it was really worth seeing after all because it made us think. That’s the way we felt about Yentl, which we saw at the Asolo Rep two days after God of Carnage. Based on the short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, the play is not taken from the screenplay of the Barbra Streisand movie, but is a new script with the same roots. It is centered on a young Jewish woman, Yentl, living in a Polish village in the late-nineteenth century, when Orthodox Judaism viewed the education of women to be contrary to the teachings of the Torah and the Talmud. Yentl, however, refuses to settle for the life imposed on women in her culture. She persuades her father to teach her after his (male, of course) students have left for the day, and she proves to be a brilliant scholar. When her father dies and she has no options for survival other than marriage, she dresses in boys’ clothing, leaves her village, and goes to a yeshiva — a school for young men pursuing religious studies. Her masquerade is successful, although it has some unintended consequences, and Yentl learns the hard way that being true to herself can be more painful than following the herd.
The production values of the play were excellent, as were the performances. So we were both a bit perplexed by our not finding the story particularly compelling or most of the characters sympathetic. This was not, for example, Fiddler on the Roof. No soft and fuzzy philosophy, no uplifting hit songs (although there was some very interesting, if anachronistic, music). But after we got home, and after dinner, Gerry said he was having second thoughts about the play. At the heart of the story were the traditional views about women propounded by all orthodox religions over time, the imposition of rules intended to keep women in their place and to prevent them from exercising power outside the home. Was it just that men were afraid if women were not tightly constrained, they might usurp men’s authority? Or did they fear that women might actually question the rules created by men but propounded as God’s laws? The vehemence with which the men in the play — young as well as old — rail against the educated woman is horrifying. They call her an abomination, a monstrosity, all this as Yentl, in her men’s clothing, listens in silence. She is afraid to speak out in defense of women when she is posing as a man, although she was quick to do so before her masquerade. I see in this an analogy to the outrage expressed openly by millions of Catholic women when the bishops opposed the law requiring employers to offer — and insurers to provide — contraception to those employees who wanted it. A Catholic woman posing as a man in order to serve as a priest would probably keep as silent as Yentl in her man’s garb.
In the interest of fairness, I must admit that I have a longstanding antipathy to all forms of organized religion. But my antagonism toward religious orthodoxy and fundamentalism, at least, has a strong basis in fact. I see Yentl as a woman starving for knowledge, and the food she craves is kept locked up for the use of men who may or may not even want it. That, and not her love of learning, is the abomination.