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Mulishly Good 

A profusion of styles held together with a potent, familiar legend

Wednesday, Apr 23 2003
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The title God's Donkey refers to the burdens Moses took on as deliverer of the Jews. The self-exiled young Egyptian with a stutter -- in Corey Fischer's brief but marvelous show -- becomes an eloquent prophet and wizardly scourge of Pharaoh when he consents to become a sort of mule for the Lord.

God's Donkey was a hit when it premiered at A Traveling Jewish Theatre in 2000, and ATJT brings it back this month for Passover in the wake of a national tour. It's a whimsically serious show on Old Testament themes using two actors, a few simple props, and surges of live klezmer and blues from the versatile Daniel Hoffman. Like Opening to You, a Psalm-play that ATJT premiered last month, God's Donkey jerks from style to style; pantomime in one scene turns to straight drama, which turns into a blues song and then into irreverent Egyptian rap or a puppet show. Unlike Opening to You, which relied on a vague story in the Psalms for suspense, God's Donkey holds together its teeming profusion of styles with a potent, familiar legend.

The show starts with a pair of Jews hauling rock for Pharaoh. One is cynical, the other hopeful. They gossip about the supposed ban on Jewish baby boys: Does it really exist? "Seen any baby boys lately?" the cynical one asks. The scene shifts to a female slave in childbirth. She sets her baby on the waves of the Nile, and the scene shifts again, to an exuberant human-beatbox rap (over a blues guitar vamp) about Pharaoh's daughter. It seems she's got a thing for Hebrew men -- "You can call me a slut/ But I like my men clean and cut" -- so when her servants find the floating baby, she decides to raise him as her personal courtesan.

I don't remember Moses as a sex slave, personally, but the best part of God's Donkey is its joyful lack of respect for the usual pieties. Aaron Davidman, Eric Rhys Miller (the two actors), and their director, Fischer, have co-written a show that reaches beyond the Old Testament toward a vision of Moses as an insufferable contradiction. He's austere as well as pampered, Jewish as well as Egyptian, holy as well as profane, liberator and giver of law. When God leads him to the edge of the Sinai desert to show off the Promised Land, where Moses dies of old age and donkeylike servitude, God says, "I promise peace." And he adds, before the old man can object, "I promise war." The show itself is a struggle between reverence and rebellion, for Fischer and his liberal-minded troupe, and reviving it after 2 1/2 years (years full of upheaval in the Middle East) feels both poignant and brave.

Parts of the show still fall flat, like the character of Pharaoh (a gray, uninspired puppet) and the pipe-smoking Freudian analyst, who comes out at funny moments to interpret Moses' stormy relationship with God. But those parts are balanced by strokes of brilliance, like the scene of Moses' introduction to human suffering, when an Egyptian beats a Hebrew slave, or his introduction to God in the guise of a burning bush -- in this case Miller, sitting under a red sack and waving his arms to make the material flutter. The show would also not be the same without Hoffman, the leader of the San Francisco Klezmer Experience, who sits onstage with a Fender Telecaster, playing sensual jazz and blues, looping weird sounds through an effects pedal, and then picking up his violin to play stark, minor-toned klezmer.

All three men perform with a discipline that says a lot in very few gestures. Their craft itself shows a kind of reverence, even when Miller plays God as a blues singer in Ray-Bans. In fact, the reverent-seeming parts of the show -- the mood-setting chants, the slower fiddle solos -- are boring. The soul of God's Donkey lies in the absurd struggle to admire or deal with Moses as a central figure in Jewish identity, and it reminds me of the trouble most Philip Roth characters have in making peace with their dads. In one of the most offhand but moving bits of Roth's American Pastoral, the fathers are described as, "Limited men with limitless energy; men quick to be friendly and quick to be fed up; men for whom the most serious thing in life is to keep going despite everything. And we were their sons. It was our job to love them."

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