Mazel tov to Orbiter 3 for having completed its mission and fulfilled a promise to us and to itself. Three years ago, it created a playwrights collective, planning to produce world premieres by local writers with a company of local actors. And it did: A People, by LM Feldman, playing through June 2 at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, is the 10th and final show.
But even as I offer congratulations, I add an oy vey. A People, a play about what it means to be a Jew, is a flawed and shapeless script, far too long, and constantly in danger of slipping into cliché. And at the moment, when Israel is celebrating its 70th anniversary and there are riots on the Palestinian border, this would seem to be a tricky time to sidestep these contentious political issues and insist that the Jewish religion and its rituals and its languages must be preserved as they have been handed down for 3,000 years.
The show's very title suggests tribalism, the bond linking individuals as a group, separate from all others. How you feel about tribes will to some extent influence how you feel about this play, in which rabbis and grandparents hector and lecture young people about preserving traditions. To be fair, the production, under Rebecca Wright's direction, does interrogate these traditions in interesting ways: For example, the ritual of the mikveh (where women must bathe monthly after menstruation because it is regarded as unclean) is played by two men, one bearded, both in slips.
The diversity of the talented cast is also very much to the play's point: "a people" it wants to show us, are linked not by what they look like but by the legacy of faith (insert here the song "Tradition" from Fiddler on the Roof). But diversity has its dangers and drawbacks; as characters ask, "Are we still a people when everyone is moving away, getting divorced, converting to Buddhism and veganism?"
There isn't really a plot or clearly delineated characters, and I wondered who are all those 19th-century grandmothers and grandfathers who limp, bent over, only two generations away from their 21st-century grandchildren — aren't we missing 100 years or so in between?
The musicians, playing music by Daniel Perelstein, create an atmosphere, and the cast does well with the intoning of Hebrew prayers, although their Yiddish accents sometimes get in the way of intelligibility. The ensemble – Aaron Bell (a standout), Richard Chan, Mal Cherifi, Eliana Fabiyi, Anita Holland, Jaime Maseda, Bianca Sanchez, and Leah Walton – play many different roles, and they struggle, not always successfully, with the church's unfriendly acoustics. Ignoring the venue, with its illuminated stained-glass windows showing holy Christian scenes, struck me as a missed opportunity for comment.