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Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Stereotypes define controversial play at Straz Center

At first, “Behind the Gates” seems like a cautionary tale about extremism intended to provoke intellectual thought and dialog. But then Act II comes along, and the play devolves into TV melodrama without a remote control. There are, in fact, so many problems with the script, even Jobsite's strong cast and directing can't undo what playwright Wendy Graf has done. The play opens with teenaged Bethany (Danielle Calderone) stomping to the stage in a rage against her parents. Dressed down in Goth clothing and makeup, with a flare for inserting f-bombs in every sentence, Bethany is mad because her parents are sending her to Israel for three months. They're trying to straighten her out, and they're sure that summer school in the Middle East will do the trick. During this rant, Bethany begins to transition from brat to bat (daughter). She calms down as she explains the laws and customs of Orthodox Judaism that she's learning in school, all the while covering her body with more modest attire – a blouse buttoned up to her neck, a long skirt, a sweater and a head scarf.
By the end, she has met Rabbi Meir (Owen Robertson) at the Western Wall, returned to his home for Shabbat dinner and embraced the tenets of Haredi Judaism, an ultra-Orthodox form of Judaism. In the second act, Bethany vanishes from the Haredi community and her parents fly to Israel to find her. With the help of a private detective (Petrus Antonius) and a U.S. Embassy representative (Frank Jakes), Susan (Caroline Jett) and Jerry (Pete Clapsis) find more than they bargained for. Where to begin? First the good. Karla Hartley's direction is sensitive and balanced, and her casting is good. Jobsite, partnering with the Tampa Jewish Community Center & Federation, has done well bringing her on board. Calderone's Bethany is a bit strident at first, but then aren't most ungrateful, selfish, spoiled crack babies? Her on-stage transformation, however, is fascinating. She's a completely different girl when she removes the black eye makeup and lipstick. Antonius makes a terrific P.I./tour guide. He really captures the street-smart Israeli and his timing is spot-on, adding much-needed levity with his quick-witted lines. Now for the not so good. Graf's characters, storyline and dialogue have been seen and heard before. They're all stereotypes, from the hanky-wringing American mother to the Arab waiter. As for the Haredi, Graf depicts them as violent misogynists who prey on young women to induct them into their sect. But then, through Bethany's eyes, she also shows the beauty in their rituals and traditions. So which is it? Are they dangerous cultist crazies or well-meaning zealots? Is Rabbi Meir's community an anomaly, or is does Graf consider this the standard? It's hard to tell. Also, how would Graf know what goes on behind the gates? Haredi Jews are an insular community that abjures the “outside” world. Theirs is an extreme lifestyle that strictly adheres to the laws set forth in the Torah. It's doubtful that Graf and a bunch of Haredim got together over cappuccino and gabbed about the ups and downs of orthodoxy. More likely, the playwright is making assumptions that, unfortunately and perhaps unintentionally, undermine calls for acceptance. Despite the contextual issues, “Behind the Gates” is worth seeing for the sake of discussion.
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