Dark times make for good dramas, and while the narrative of Heresy is too cluttered with half-explored incidentals, the heart is there. As an educational piece, it's worth checking out, but uneven acting may be too great a gulf for the audience to cross.
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
Sabina Berman’s Heresy, playing at the HERE Arts Center, is an attempt both to represent the immigration of colonists to Mexico in the 16th century and the religious persecution of the Jews, even in the New World. The cast’s blunt speechifying makes the result more like a history lesson; the black boxes, hats, and masks left scattered across the empty emphasize this schoolhouse atmosphere. But it’s not a bad play, and as educational theater (based on autobiography), it’s surprisingly solid.
The action takes place in New Spain (Mexico) as it is “civilized” by Luis de Carbajal the Elder (a stilted, DeNiro-like Manny Alfáro). Luis is a genuine Catholic—or at least a fearful opportunist—but when he discovers that his relatives still practice Judaism, he remains silent. Other characters are swept into this fold as well, from the uneducated Jesús Baltazár (Andrew Eisenman) to Luis’s faithful servant, Pedro Nuñez (an often-flat Bill Cohen). Their stories wash in and out, but due to the years-spanning scope, they seem like moralist examples of persecution rather than dramatic scenes.
Heresy begins with the torture/interrogation of Luis de Carbajal the Younger (the charismatic Morteza Tavakoli): it makes sense, therefore, for the extended flashbacks of the show to come off as exhibits. There is defiance in Doña Isabel’s (the excellent Sue Hyon) Israeli pride, there is innocence in Rodriguez Matos’ (Mauricio Leyton) faith, and there is doubt in Luis the Younger’s soul. The drama comes from the conflict between young Luis and his brother, Brother Augustin (a haunted Daniel Damiano), and if Berman ever wants to focus the text, this is the ideal place to do so.
Heresy is a large show that could use a little more ambition. Crammed into ninety minutes, twenty of which are repetitive (yet brutal) scenes with the inquisitors, there isn’t enough time to really savor the theatrical life of the Jewish traditions and ceremonies that were forced underground. A marriage ceremony is forced to double as a confrontation, and several stories (like that of Jesús Baltazár) are told half in summarizing monologues, half in vignettes. A better balance needs to be found in the narrative structure for us to accept this type of confessional storytelling. But even unbalanced and occasionally clumsy, Heresy is an inspired piece of theater—it’s just not inspirational.
HERE Arts Center (145 Avenue of the Americas)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $15.00
Performances: 12/13 @ 7:00; 12/15 @ 7:00; 12/16 @ 2:00; 12/17 @ 2:00
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