National Jewish Theater

A false messiah is the strongest test of a true believer. That paradox finds powerful proof in Martin Sherman’s 1982 Messiah, a fast-moving folktale set in a turbulent time: 1665, when Eastern European Jews, weary of pogroms by Ukrainian Cossacks, were inspired by a messianic figure. Shabbetai Tzvi, it was said, would ride into Constantinople accompanied by the prophet Elijah, dethrone the sultan, then march triumphantly to Jerusalem’s rebuilt temple to be crowned King of the Jews; the ten lost tribes, rediscovered in Arabia, would attack the Jews’ other enemies. Breaking Talmudic law, Shabbetai preached sexual equality and the pursuit of pleasure. His followers in North Africa, Europe, and Israel were urged to marry and procreate early–to rid the universe of unborn souls before the Day of Reckoning.

In Sherman’s Messiah 28-year-old Rachel is caught up in this hysteria. A commonsensical Polish Jew who has until now focused on finding love, not salvation, she’s convinced that her pocked face and buckteeth rule out romance. But she’s smitten with Asher, the handsome, visionary 24-year-old nephew of Reb Ellis, the older man whom Rachel has consented to marry. Ellis first sacrifices his family’s possessions, then himself to the new messiah, leaving Rachel, Asher, and Rachel’s mother Rebecca–who’s become mute as a result of her wanderings in Poland–to seek Shabbetai in Turkey.

Their pilgrimage exposes the clash between Asher’s and Rachel’s quests for salvation: he looks for purity, she for love. When Asher dutifully acts on Shabbetai’s credo that “nothing is forbidden” by making love to Rachel, her taste of love far outweighs any messiah. Betrayed by the man he thought would save him, Asher can neither hope for heaven nor endure this earth. Equally shaken in her faith, but not her love, Rachel continues to believe that the “Messiah is inside of us.”

Though Sherman’s dialogue is often irritatingly flippant and the schematic plot is overly explanatory, sometimes trivializing the story, the characters in Messiah are convincing. The women are especially strong: doubting, yearning Rachel; Rebecca, who howls her rage at the evils that made her mute; matchmaking Tanta Rose; and Sarah, Shabbetai’s much-tested wife.

Jeff Ginsberg’s ardent staging for National Jewish Theater respects the humor and humanity of Sherman’s characters. None is more complexly human than Lisa Dodson as Rachel, a woman who embraces love out of fear she’ll never know it and who combines Tevye with Mother Courage in her bold approach to God and adversity. Dodson treats Rachel’s crisis of faith like a force of nature, moving believably from skepticism to sexual awakening and back to skepticism. It would be hard to know this character better or admire her more. Raul E. Esparza as Asher suggests the intoxicating freedom unleashed when a new order is anticipated: we taste the character’s scary joy in trampling on the past–and bitterness when he finds his sacrifices scorned.

The rest of the ensemble offer gem performances: Kristine Thatcher as the eloquently mute Rebecca, Carole Gutierrez as the garrulous Tanta Rose, Thomas Joseph Carroll as the sad, silly Reb Ellis, and Linnea Todd as Sarah, mysteriously messianic in her own right.

Linda Buchanan’s sprawling raked wooden stage provides a supple backdrop for Rita Pietraszek’s dappled lighting, Frances Maggio’s culture-clashing costumes, and (most impressive) Robert Neuhaus’s sound design–a glorious web of Jewish and Islamic musical motifs that conjures up everything from a wedding dance to a Turkish bazaar.