Adena Jacobs’ new performance work at Theatre Works is the first of a two part series exploring the Biblical Book of Exodus with children as performers. ‘Exploring’ is appropriate to describe it because what we see onstage is much more exploratory than conventionally representative or narrative-driven, and we are treated with far more ambiguous visual delights than textual certainties. The work is confounding, asking many questions and resolving very few, and perhaps might be better approached as visual performance art than theatre. The work trusts deeply in the power of the image and symbolism, and much of what happened onstage left me wishing I had read the program notes a little more carefully, suggesting maybe a little more framing within the work could have gone a long way.
The Book of Exodus is almost synonymous with epic – it is a long story in many parts, though the most familiar is the story of the Hebrews, led by Moses to rise up against the Egyptians, parting the Red Sea to escape into the desert – and this is only the first part of the tale. It is an enormous journey, complete with visions from God, vicious plagues visited upon the Egyptian people, and bittersweet redemption from the cruel, age-old enslavement of the children of Israel. Jacobs’ new work is antithetical to this most replete of narratives, offering instead a stark vision of a carved polystyrene monument and a broad, minimalist desert of the crumbled, squeaky foam. From within this beautiful set, two small people and unexpected objects emerge and escape, sometimes from under the desert, sometimes from within the monument. A gingerbread house, picked at by children, who eat the gummy snakes while giggling. I was longing for a clearer frame: even so simple as to say, this work is only about this section of the book. Are the gummy snakes symbolic of one of the plagues? Is the gingerbread house the House of Israel? The tabernacle in the desert? What does it mean that the children are eating from its roof? Other objects – a candle, a Pharaoh headpiece – seem less potent, just kids playing around.
In other moments, the children spread lines of sticky red blood onto their skin. It looks like the line of lamb’s blood that the Israelites spread above their doorframes to protect their firstborns from the angel of death. The children have many scars on different parts of their body. I think about blood. The blood of Christ, of animals (who, in those times, were meant to symbolise the Messiah-to-come). The idea of sacrifice. The power of the image; graven images; golden calves. I’m thinking about all of this but don’t feel like I’m getting anywhere.
Why children? We might ask that question of God – it’s interesting that every first-born was killed. Why punish the children for the failings of the adults? (Or, for that matter, why punish anyone except the rulers who actually make the decisions?) God wanted to show his power and inspire awe. In a rare moment of text, ‘Moses’ reads the lines from Exodus about this event. It’s so strange, how as someone who was raised Christian, the paternal voice of God from Exodus can somehow still sound comforting, even when the horrors he is enacting are so violent and abusive. Why are the Hebrews always ‘Children’ of Israel? Childhood is mythologised in relation to sacred Fatherhood (and so rarely, Motherhood).
The children on stage are like orphan siblings, sometimes the older is mother to the younger, sometimes they are just brother and sister playing. Other times, they are ‘Moses’ and ‘Aaron’, but it’s not clear to what end, to which part of the story we should be referring to. In the beginning, they are an old couple, wearing wrinkly masks over their heads and hobbling around the stage. This is stunningly beautiful; the performers’ physicalities are impressively similar to what you might expect from centenarians trying to shove their feet through the desert sands. Youth and age seem mystically linked in this moment.
There is live video projection. The elderly children operate the camcorder in the fumbling way one might expect from people of their age. The video is projected seamlessly onto the widescreen monument, offering two views of the same thing at the same time. Later, there is live footage from a camera hidden in the roof – bird’s eye view, or God’s eye.
The show is only part one. When it finished, I was surprised at the brevity and ready for more. To review this part on its own may seem ungenerous, because I am very excited to see where these investigations are directed in the second part. Nonetheless I cannot help but find the work a bit dissatisfying; it almost seems like a preface to the much more promising large-cast second part, from which I would expect something more similar to Jacobs’ previous work The Bacchae. The work was subtle, not a sensory overload, for which it can hardly be faulted. But as an audience member in a theatre seat, it’s hard not to expect spectacle and maybe even overload, if we’re not getting a textual, listening experience. I wonder how it would have worked in a gallery, or as a durational work with the audience free to leave and return. I am nonetheless glad to have encountered such bold and intriguing design by Emma Valente and Kate Davis (fresh off their own Theatre Works show) and hope somebody else’s reflections on this work might fill in more of the puzzle for me.