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Guilty in Absentia?
by Deidre McFadyen
The Trial of God reviewed August 28, 2004
As a teenager in a Nazi death camp, Elie Wiesel witnessed three Jewish rabbis put God on trial. Their verdict: guilty of crimes against humankind. In his 1979 play, The Trial of God, Wiesel, the distinguished author and winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, imagined the same scenario unfolding in a 1649 Ukrainian village after a pogrom.

Stone Soup Theatre Arts has chosen this deeply religious and philosophical play as its contribution to The UnConvention, a festival by politically engaged theater groups that is coinciding with the Republican National Convention. The audience is invited to envision itself sitting in God’s chair at the defense table. Are we, too, guilty of being quiet bystanders to human suffering and political misdeeds?

Director Nadine Friedman has updated the action to a timeless present, but she leaves the original script mostly intact in her satisfying restaging. This low-budget production—with its basic set, perfunctory modern costumes, no sound design, and almost no lighting effects—nonetheless delivers a wallop thanks to the solid direction and some fine acting.

The play opens as three Jewish minstrels—played by Nat Cauldwell, Eric Eisenbrey and Dondrie Burnham—chance upon a tavern in the benighted town on the Jewish holiday of Purim. The Jewish innkeeper, one of the few survivors of the recent pogrom, refuses to participate in the travellers’ revelry and when they offer to perform for him, he insists that they put God on trial. The minstrels agree to be the judges while the innkeeper appoints himself prosecutor. No one is willing to defend God until a mysterious man, Sam, arrives to offer his services.

The innkeeper, whose sole surviving daughter has gone mad following the mayhem that erupted on her wedding day, accuses God of "hostility, cruelty and indifference."

"Either He knows what's happening to us, or he doesn't wish to know! In both cases, He is guilty," he asserts.

It is a lopsided debate. Sam’s eloquent retorts about God’s mysterious ways do not persuade us. Yet he seems to sway the judges as the action hurtles towards its shattering conclusion.

Among the standouts in the solid cast is Teresa Jusino as Maria, the down-to-earth waitress who has earlier tasted Sam's venom. Shawn Shafner is convincing as the bigoted priest who nevertheless comes to warn the innkeeper that another bloodbath is imminent. Ben Trawick-Smith dazzles as the dashing and wily Sam.

Trial of God has its share of flaws. The minstrels’ song and dance is a wan version of Klezmer (the original music is by Trawick-Smith). The absence of sound effects undercuts the emotional intensity of certain scenes, including the finale. Jason DeMarchi, in the pivotal role of the innkeeper, demonstrates a quicksilver temper but struggles to convey his character’s despair.

Stone Soup Theatre Arts deserves credit. It took moxie to choose this decidedly unhip play for The UnConvention. But the company has created a production that both entertains and educates.

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THE TRIAL OF GOD

Abingdon Theater Stage II
Category:  Drama
Written by:  By Elie Wiesel
Directed by:  Directed by Nadine Friedman
Produced by:  Stone Soup Theatre Arts
Opened:  August 27, 2004
Closed:  September 11, 2004
Running Time:  90 minutes

Theater:  Abingdon Theater Stage II
Address:  312 West 36th Street, First Floor
New York, NY 10018
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BOX OFFICE
Tickets:  $12.00
Discount festival passes for The UnConvention are available at www.theatermania.com.
CREDITS
Creative Team
Written by:  Elie Wiesel
Directed by:  Nadine Friedman
Produced by:  Stone Soup Theatre Arts
Light Designer:  Sean Linehan
Set Designer:  Dana Schloss
Costume Designer:  Coleen Scott
Music:  Ben Tawick-Smith
Movement:  Marsha Martinez

Cast
Jason DeMarchi as Berish
Teresa Jusino as Maria
Nat Cauldwell as Yankel
Eric Eisenbrey as Avremel
Dondrie Burnham as Mendel
Shawn Shafner as Priest
Marsha Martinez as Hanna
Ben Trawick-Smith as Sam

Crew
Stage Manager:  Leigh Goldenberg
Postcard Design:  Chris Soria