Conviction | New Jewish Theatre

conviction 75The play’s genesis does disprove the old canard about too many cooks, because this is a rich and satisfying broth, indeed.

 

conviction 500

It just occurred to me that I’ve seen three plays in three days, and all of them have one-word titles. That must be a good luck charm because all are also excellent. But this was the only one that made me cry, and I’d be surprised if anyone walked out of the theatre unmoved. Ami Dayan is simply brilliant as a conflicted priest and the other characters in his orbit in the current New Jewish Theatre production.

Convictionis based on the life and death of Andrés González (1447-1486), a Spanish priest in the 15th century, upon whom Yonatan Ben-Nachum based a novel, Confession, which won the 2002 Prime Minister Award for Hebrew Literature. It was translated into English by Ami Dayan. This play was based on Ben Nachum’s novel and written by Oren Neeman. Again Dayan translated and adapted the drama which he now performs as a one-person show. Got all that? Well, don’t worry because there won’t be a test, but the play’s genesis does disprove the old canard about too many cooks, because this is a rich and satisfying broth, indeed.

The story begins with Dayan acting the part of a modern-day “inquisitor,” the manager of the Spanish National Archives in Madrid who is questioning a scholar by the name of “Tal” about a folder the man has tried to smuggle out. It is now 1962, and the contents tell the story of the aforementioned González through his own writings. Why, the manager wants to know, is this particular 500-year-old account of such specific interest to Tal? It’s important to note that during the 1960s, Spain was under the rule of Francisco Franco, representing another period of repression in a country that was once a peaceful melting pot of Christians, Muslims and Jews. This interrogation provides a framing device for the first-person account of a Catholic priest who falls in love with a Jewish woman. We hear most of it as the priest confesses it to his own mentor, Juan de Salamanca, not realizing that the seal of the confessional is broken and that he will soon be required to pay the ultimate price for his “crimes” against the church.

González is a converso, a Jew by birth but one whose father converted to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition. He goes by Andrés, but his real name is “Ysrael.” He learned about his “difference” through a traumatic childhood event. He takes refuge in the church, serving Jesus and performing all the rituals of his office, even as he meets the woman who will become his wife, Isabel, and learns Jewish prayers and customs. He has a foot in both worlds though, because as he describes while making love to Isabel, when he opens his eyes, he sees her, but when he closes them, he is haunted by the sad eyes of the crucified Christ. He has been a Christian and a priest too long for him to be able to turn his back quickly on the faith in which he grew up in favor of the one to which he was born.

Isabel pretends to be her husband’s housekeeper so they can live together after their secret wedding, but when she becomes pregnant, she must return to her home until the child is born. One of the most touching scenes in the play is when “Father” becomes a father to his own baby and is able to spend a couple of joyful days holding the boy they call “Fernando” (“Ephraim” in secret) and the actor rolls up his simple brown monk’s robe to make it represent the swaddling blanket. But even during this best of times, we are aware that this story is bound not to end well.

The question of identity is central to Conviction. There were many reasons Jews cooperated and converted, and sometimes, they merely underwent the Sacrament of Baptism and returned to their homes where they continued to practice Judaism. Conversion could be chosen because of a knife to the throat or as a result of being persuaded that adhering to the principles of the dominant Spanish faith would be good for business and educational opportunities. Converts were closely observed, however, to make sure they really were now followers of Christ. In this production, very simple props furnish the different worlds the protagonist navigates and tries to balance, and the lighting effects are stunning. A stained glass rendition of the Crucifixion is often projected on the wall. At one point, the light creates a Star of David on the floor in which one of Dayan’s characters stands; at another, the actual words of Andrés Gonzaález are rendered in light. The lighting design is credited to Nathan Schroeder, though it’s hard to tell how much of the production is pre-packaged, because director Joe Gfaller’s program credit is “restaged by.” Whoever is responsible did it very well.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) in the Catholic Church is intended to bring peace to an errant soul, but this one only brings suffering and death. The Passion of Andrés and that of the Christ parallel each other in the end, just as the priest’s love for the teacher he serves and the man’s devotion to the wife he takes as a Jew run along the same tracks in his heart. As Andrés himself says, the Christian savior was branded, “Jesus Christ, King of the. . . “ before his gruesome end, but “Christians” have converted Jesus himself by the act of worshiping him. We do learn why the scholar is interested in González specifically, but that isn’t the end of the story. This fascinating play reminds us that if we aren’t working toward ending unnecessary suffering, whether it is in North Africa or north St. Louis, that we aren’t the kind of people we should be, no matter what god, if any, we choose to serve. | Andrea Braun

Conviction runs through Apr. 14 at the New Jewish Theatre, and next week will be your last chance to see it. You may contact www.newjewishtheatre.org for information.

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