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Pharaoh

A fascinating exploration into the mind of the person who has been vilified and excoriated at every Passover Seder for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

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Dr. Kalmandalam John as Pharaoh with musicians Tripp Dudley and Galan Presson in a scene from Misha Shulman’s “Pharaoh” at Theater for the New City (Photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)

[avatar user=”Scotty Bennett” size=”96″ align=”left”] Scotty Bennett, Critic[/avatar]

When it comes to storytelling, the point of view is an essential element. This element is the perspective from which the story is being told. It is the gateway to experiencing the plot, the thoughts and behaviors of the characters, and an understanding of the world the characters inhabit. While there are different types of views, the most intimate is the first person. It is the one that shows a character’s innermost thoughts and emotions, revealing their perspective on the world in which they live.

Pharaoh, written by Misha Shulman and directed by Michael Posnick, is the story of Exodus told by the title character in the first person. It is a fascinating exploration into the mind of the person who has been vilified and excoriated at every Passover Seder for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

This show, as conceived by Shulman, creates a unique theatrical experience combining narrative text with Kathakali, a form of traditional Indian dance exquisitely performed by Kalamandalam John. Shulman gives voice to all the characters, principally the Pharaoh. At the same time, John acts out the 54 different characters in an elaborate costume, colorful make-up (costumes and make-up by Dr. Kalatharangini Mary John), intricate gestures, expressive facial movements, and traditional dance moves of Kathakali.

At the beginning, a curtain is held up as John enters, unseen by the audience. When he is revealed in full costume, he gestures to the audience. Then he offers a blessing to the two musicians, music director Tripp Dudley on the tabla and other percussions and Galen Presson on the sitar and mandolin. At this point, Shulman begins the narration, giving voice to each of the characters.

Misha Schulman with globe and shofar in a scene from Misha Shulman’s “Pharaoh” at Theater for the New City (Photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)

For those who are not familiar with the story of Exodus, it is about the people who will become Israelites being released from Egyptian slavery. They are led by Moses, who was raised as the child of a Pharaoh by the Pharaoh’s sister. As a young adult Egyptian prince, he kills an overseer who is beating a Hebrew slave and, as a result, flees into exile. When he returns as an anointed of Yahweh, the god of the Hebrews, he is directed to restore the faith of the Hebrews and free them from Egyptian bondage.

Moses and the Pharaoh were raised together as brothers, but time has changed both men, so they are now adversaries. The story begins with the Pharaoh visiting the grave of his only son, waiting for him to be raised from the dead in accordance with Egyptian beliefs, and telling the story of the cause of his death.

He tells of Moses visiting Pharaoh and asking permission to take the Hebrews to a desert location for a three-day religious festival. The Pharaoh refuses, and the next day, when Moses returns, he asks that Pharaoh free the Hebrews. Again, Pharaoh refuses and Moses then warns Pharaoh that the God of the Hebrews will bring ten plagues to the land of Egypt.

As the various plagues are inflicted on the Egyptian people, Moses asks the Pharaoh to “Let my people go,” each time being rebuked by him. After each of the plagues, various people in the Pharaoh’s household and government, including his young son, implore Pharaoh to agree to Moses’ demands. As the tenth plague strikes down his son, he realizes that the God of Moses is more powerful than the living god-king Pharaoh; he releases the Hebrews. This act reveals the Pharaoh as a broken man but one who finds renewal in grieving over his son.

Tripp Dudley on tabla and percussion and Galen Presson on sitar and mandolin in a scene from Misha Shulman’s “Pharaoh” at Theater for the New City (Photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)

As Shulman presents each character in his narration, they are played out in John’s intricate and expressive movements. He effortlessly shifts from being the Pharaoh to being his wife and then an obsequious member of the Pharaoh’s inner circle, doing it all with the movement of his arms, precise placement of his feet, and tilt of his head.

According to Rabbi Shulman, Pharaoh is about “dimensionalizing” the Passover story by letting go of a singular perspective, the Pharaoh as a bad person. Ultimately, this is a play about empathy and imagination as critical to understanding those who are perceived as “the other.” It is humanizing to experience events from what may be considered an alien point of view.

There is one other aspect of the production that deserves attention. The lighting design by Wheeler Moon is essential in helping define the movements of Kalamandalam John as he embodies each character.

Pharaoh (through March 31, 2024)

Theater for the New City

155 First Avenue, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-254-1109 or visit http://www.theaterforthenewcity.net

Running time: 75 minutes without an intermission

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About Scotty Bennett (80 Articles)
Scotty Bennett is a retired businessman who has worn many hats in his life, the latest of which is theater critic. For the last twelve years he has been a theater critic and is currently the treasurer of the American Theatre Critics Association and a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics. He has been in and around the entertainment business for most of his life. He has been an actor, director, and stage hand. He has done lighting, sound design, and set building. He was a radio disk jockey and, while in college ran a television studio and he even knows how to run a 35mm arc lamp projector.

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