Winnipeg playwright’s ‘Narrow Bridge’ a living piece of theatre with innumerable lessons
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In orthodox Jewish synagogues, there is a dividing line that separates women from men. It’s a practice steeped in thousands of years of tradition, and it is a decidedly important part of many people’s personal journey of focused prayer.
But what if a congregant doesn’t feel comfortable sitting on the side they are expected to sit on? What if the shape of their neshama — their soul — doesn’t match up with the container provided by their goof — their body?
That is the dilemma faced by Sholem, the central character of Winnipeg playwright Daniel Thau-Eleff’s Narrow Bridge, which had its world premiere at the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre on Saturday night.
The result of this premise is a remarkable achievement of spiritual theatre, imbued with Jewish humour, rhythm and ta-am (flavour) which would make John Hirsch proud. It asks some of society’s most pressing questions, and the answer it provides is that one upon which every religion is founded: treat others the way you want to be treated.
Sholem, played by Elio Zarrillo, grew up being called by a different name. But as their 30s near, their sister Naomi and mother Elaine (Alissa Watson and Rhea Akler) begin to ask Sholem questions accompanied by the approach of that gerontological milestone; the prodigal child grows sceptical.
Zarrillo, who uses they/them pronouns, is not Jewish by birth, but understands what it means to belong to a minority: to be othered, to be too much, and to be not enough. It is worth remembering that until relatively recently, certain beaches, country clubs, and faculties in Manitoba had formal and informal policies designed to bar the entry of Jewish people, people of colour, Indigenous people, women and members of the LGBTQ+ community. For trans people like Sholem, the world is still very much designed in a binary fashion which restricts their rights to exist freely.
A current tidal wave of anti-trans legislation in the U.S., has led to emphatic calls for Canada to accept trans and non-binary asylum seekers. Wasn’t Abraham’s tent known for having an open-flap policy?
With conviction, the energetic and engaging Zarrillo summons the pain, and then, the euphoria, which comes from self-actualization, buoyed by a script so packed with wisdom and wit that it’s at times difficult to keep up; that is a compliment, not a criticism.
When Sholem defiantly dons tefillin — the small, leather box Jewish men wear during prayer — for the first time, a beacon of light pours in from above. It is an out of body experience, and Sholem’s neshama begins to glow. (Adam Parboosingh’s lighting design elevates the story every time it gets a chance to do so).
While the show rightfully belongs to Zarrillo, their co-stars shine. As Naomi, the dishevelled sister, Alissa Watson is the sister every sibling needs: determined, sharp, and willing to call him on his bullshit. Watson’s comedic chops are anything but chopped liver.
Reminded that she flunked all her Judaic courses in school, Watson’s retort draws applause within the Berney Theatre, also used by the Gray Academy of Jewish Education, the high school from which Thau-Eleff graduated in 1998. “That’s what everyone does,” Naomi says.
Harry Nelken plays Sholem’s talmudic guide Mendel — tall, bearded, and addled by lost time. Instead of waiting for the tenth man to join him in prayer, Mendel is alone at his weekly Talmud study. Normally, class is cancelled, he tells Sholem, the lone attendee, “because the attendance is usually lower.”
Rhea Akler’s Elaine is dynamic and soulful, always eager to play that ancient game known by members of the tribe as Jewish geography. “Do you remember Ari Hershfield?” she asks Sholem, a few weeks shy of turning 30. “He was at your seventh birthday.”
A highlight of the show is unscripted: when Akler accidentally drops the salad tongs at the dinner table, she knows exactly what to say. “Oy gevalt.”
Under the direction of Tracey Erin Smith, the two-hour, 20-minute-long show feels brisk, which for a show a decade in the making is a testament to the time dedicated to its creation.
Thau-Eleff — who devised the show with help from his friend Ben Baader, a trans professor of European and Jewish history and a late adopter to Orthodox Judaism — has created a living piece of theatre understandable to audiences of any religious background.
No matter which lines divide the world into categories of us and them, Narrow Bridge teaches innumerable lessons. We are all human, we are all lost, and we are all trying our best to find a place to be ourselves.
Gender, like light, exists along a spectrum. To deny that is to put human lives in the dark. To accept that is to keep the eternal candle of life burning.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.