Some plays make me laugh. Some make me cry. But the Jewish Theatre Collaborative‘s A Pigeon and a Boy is the first to send me thumbing through the Old Testament for pigeon references.
The play is a “first” in many ways: a world premiere stage adaptation of Meir Shalev’s novel of the same name, adapted in-house by director Sacha Reich and Doren Elias. It’s the culmination of the JTC’s “Page2Stage” season, an immersive book club experience that started last fall with staged readings of the first chapter and continued last month with a series of “footnote” excerpts from Israeli authors.
As a Johnny-come-lately who’s not (yet) read the novel, I can’t say how well the play serves the original text…but the experience of watching it is undeniably novel-esque. Characters are connected by especially deep familial, romantic, and ideological ties. Specters from the past breathe down the necks of people in the present; sins of fathers are conspicuously visited upon their children; archetypes and icons abound. The story spans a broad scope of time, with two generations elapsing in as many hours—but time can also stand still. At key moments, the actors freeze-frame, narrating flashes of realization. Twice—at the beginning and near the end—a pigeon rises and hangs in the air, book-ending the plot between furtive twin wingbeats like angels flanking the arc of the covenant. The novel begat this play, but parts of the Bible obviously begat the novel. And that’s what sent me on my scriptural pigeon-hunt.
Bob Hicks, having marked the play’s creative development more closely than I, wrote an excellent review last week for ArtsWatch. If you have yet to see the play, or to read Shalev’s text, by all means head straight to Bob’s review. But if you’re already familiar with the story and crave more biblical and social context, read on. SPOILER ALERT: The following analysis, inspired by opening weekend’s Sunday talkback, unveils surprises from the plot.
“We’d simply like to start the conversation,” explained Reich as she perched on the edge of the stage alongside Kenneth Gordon after the epic play had run its course. “What struck you? What do you wonder about?”
“When Yair (portrayed by a frazzled Darius Pierce) kills and eats a pigeon,” chimed several audience members, leading into a speculative discourse about why he’d do such a violent, surprising, and seemingly out-of-character thing. Maybe the pigeon represented roaming, and he didn’t need it anymore because he was finally home. Perhaps the pigeon embodied the most timid, neurotic, needy aspects of himself, and he was ritually slaying those to become a stronger man. Hey, maybe since the pigeon figured into Yair’s origin story, which he had decided not to share with the rest of his surviving family, he put it in his mouth the same way it would otherwise issue forth from it, as a way of literally internalizing and protecting a secret. Maybe it was a gesture to accept the actions of his mother, even though they had previously caused him pain. Maybe once the pigeon was inside the protagonist, the origin story had returned to its origin…to finally roost and rest.
Let’s get biblical.
As you may have gathered, the role of the carrier (or homing) pigeon in this story is complex, multi-faceted, and recurring, potentially symbolic of a different idea each time it emerges.
Shalev emphasizes that the Hebrew word for longing is similar to the word “homing,” and themes of Israel-as-homeland ring loud in the subtext. But the author also mentions the dove that Noah sent from the ark, which famously returned with the first olive branch after the flood. To this day, the olive branch remains a symbol of reconciliation, while a picture of the dove that bears it is an international symbol of peace.
But Yair’s killing of the pigeon has a more direct parallel than even these that, oddly, wasn’t mentioned in talkback. In fact, the act he performs is spelled out almost to the letter in an Old Testament description of sacrifice from Leviticus:
And if the burnt sacrifice for his offering to the Lord be of fowls, then he shall bring his offering of turtledoves, or of young pigeons. And the priest shall bring it unto the altar, and wring off his head, and burn it on the altar; and the blood thereof shall be wrung out at the side of the altar; and he shall pluck away his crop with his feathers, and cast it beside the altar on the east part, by the place of the ashes; and he shall cleave it with the wings thereof, but shall not divide it asunder: and the priest shall burn it upon the altar, upon the wood that is upon the fire: it is a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, of a sweet savor unto the Lord.
Interesting. It seems as though such a ritual was suggested for—among other things—cleansing after childbirth. Hm. Even more interesting given the story’s sequence of events….
“The Baby” (who is not in fact a baby, but grows from a boy into a soldier during the story, played quite sympathetically by sometime funnyman Sam Dinkowitz) carries a pair of pigeons into battle, and does a peculiar but meaningful act as he lies dying on the battlefield: he masturbates, dispatching a tube of his semen by carrier pigeon to his girlfriend to give her one last chance to bear his child. After he dies, his girlfriend is courted by a childhood friend, a brother in their small club of carrier pigeon hobbyism who’s been waiting in the (ahem) wings. Hmmm. “Spilling one’s seed” this way points to the story of Onan, who did the same deed for the opposite reason: to prevent impregnating his brother’s widow. Another shadow of biblical significance.
Yair and Tirza (played by the confident Chantal DeGroat) begin a relationship as they reconstruct Yair’s home in Tel Aviv, and their love affair unfolds with borrowed language from the Bible’s creation story. They declare, they manifest, and they rest in scripturally familiar rhythms; they see what they’ve made and pronounce it good.
How about the birds God sent to feed the Israelites in the wilderness? Were those pigeons? I checked. Nope, quail. And manna for dessert. So maybe those are all the biblical insinuations, but more likely there are a few more that I’m still missing. Reich said we were only beginning the discussion, after all.
“For and against…”
Beyond its biblical bird references, Pigeon proposes another thematic through-line: Pros and cons. This begins when Raya (played with delicate strength by Lorraine Bahr) teaches her son Yair to make decisions by writing a list “for and against”—a practice he continues later in his life. The play even shows pros and cons to Raya’s “for and against” method, a kind of meta-analysis of analysis itself: such thinking makes decisions more difficult, but it leaves deciders more certain. The analytical streak represented in this process runs deep within Judaism, which prides itself on constantly reinterpreting and interacting with its texts rather than merely accepting authoritative edicts from elders. Is this the best approach? Yes, and no. Let’s discuss.
Of course, this is not the only show this season to spotlight Jewish ideologies and idiosyncrasies. Just last month, Wendy Westerwelle’s Medicarefully Fabulous earned raucous laughs with community in-jokes about shared character traits. But Pigeon plays these—let’s say it, stereotypes—straighter, cultivating empathy and more universal implications “for and against” a people’s predilections. Shalev’s characters demonstrate how analytical acumen, somatic sensitivity, and a dutiful and probing social approach are integral to the Jewish experience…and can each be leveraged for good or ill.
Raya’s gift and curse is her ability to attach to and romanticize a place (particularly Tel Aviv) and find contentment in her own company and senses. Pro, she can be sustained by simple pleasures like the wind in the trees. Con, her inability to adjust to a new environment ultimately pulls her away from her family. Her son inherits her sensitivity to an extent that could be called neurosis (which the fidgety Pierce plays up, fluttering nervous spirit-fingers and pacing the floor in unease). He, too, craves an escape to a peaceful place and eventually abandons family (his wife) to find it. But in his case, the end seems to justify the means: his instinctual retreat from tsuris guides him to a place where he can finally belong.
Meshulam (a warm, boisterous Matthew D. Pavik) and Liora (a coldly competent Jamie M. Rea) demonstrate two sides of another core character trait: the tendency to overbear in others’ affairs. Liora disastrously attempts to control her husband Yair’s every move, while Meshulam heroically “sticks his nose in” to urge Yair into a better match and a more suitable home, and to arrange better elder care for his friend Dr. Laufer (humbly performed by co-adaptor Doren Elias).
So where’s the lesson? Perhaps it rests in the story’s metaphorical fig trees. A twisted-up tree that no longer bears fruit is uprooted, and a new sapling is planted in a different spot, closer to the sun.
A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’ for The Portland Mercury, and is former arts editor of Portland Monthly magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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