Review: Yehuda Hyman and The Mystical Feet Company Explore Grief in The Mar Vista, An Ambitious Jewish Historical Drama

By: Dec. 15, 2016
Amanda Rose Schussel and Ron Kagan (photo credit: Paula Court)

Nothing in the press release prepared me for the power and beauty of THE MAR VISTA, an ambitious autobiographical theater-dance piece by Brooklyn-based Yehuda Hyman, which ranges over four countries on two continents in 90 years. This is no one's fault (though a tissue alert would have been nice). The collaboration between Hyman's Mystical Feet Company and LABA: The Laboratory of Jewish Culture does not lend itself to neat description. But a brief review of Hyman's artistic background--choreographer, playwright, poet, translator of poetry, and teacher of dance at Sarah Lawrence (from which he earned his M.F.A), Princeton, NYU, Barnard, and USC, among others--indicates the project's epic sweep, both emotionally and historically.

Hyman, an only child of Jewish immigrants, was raised in 1960s Mar Vista, then a working class neighborhood in West Los Angeles, which (contra the name) did not furnish universal views of the sea. His father, Charlie, came to America from Poland in 1938 with Hyman's grandfather but not the rest of the family. His mother, Sara, was born in Russia. Two years after her soldier father went AWOL, an envelope with enough cash for the family to move to Istanbul appeared. The grandmother, as was not uncommon, refused to leave the old country.

These are more than biographical details in THE MAR VISTA; they become, literally, physical forces that Hyman and his performers enact onstage. We feel the anguish and the humor of the immigrant experience, which is not presented linearly, but which makes its own kind of narrative sense as milestones in the family's past are strategically revealed. The play employs flashbacks but it's not a temporal free-for-all. Only an artist rooted as firmly in playwriting and choreography (both in an out of academia) could anchor so much personal history in the larger historical drama of pre-WWII Europe, postwar America in both Cincinnati and Los Angeles, post-9/11 Venice Beach and Istanbul. Costumes by the accomplished Amy Page (ABT Theater Education Outreach, Alvin Ailey, and Ballet Hispanico), along with sound by Ezra Lowrey and lighting by Kryssy Wright, make an invaluable contribution.

The play opens with a monologue and dance about "Hamsa," the mystical sign for five. We hear about a a Passover dinner in Los Angeles when Hyman was young and learn that his father never speaks of Poland, except on occasion to say that the fruit there was sweet: "Sweet, like sugar." The next segment features Hyman staring intently at the audience and silently turning the pages of a large sketchpad placed center stage.

PAGE 1: Leaning into moisture.

PAGE 2: "I am trying to make a piece about my mother."

PAGE 3: "I am waking up with extreme anxiety at 3:00am every morning."

PAGE 4: "My mother died 6 years ago."

PAGE 5: "She hated death. She hates that I am thinking of her death."

PAGE 6: "Or does she?"

PAGE 7: "This questions mark reminds me of my mother's breast - ?"

PAGE 8: "My mother was a very sexy woman."

PAGE 9: "She likes that I told you that."

Tears follow the visual, but as is typical with THE MAR VISTA, replaced by laughter that gives way to tears once more. The first act details the many romances of Sara, masterfully played from youth to old age by native New Yorker and Laguardia High graduate, Amanda Rose Schussel. The daughter of professional ballet dancers immersed in the arts from an early age, Schussel moves seamlessly between styles of dance. The romance with Johannes, a German Catholic priest skillfully rendered by the versatile Ryan Pater (who also plays the policeman in the play's moving final scene set in 2007 Istanbul) is shocking on two counts: Hyman's mother is Jewish and priests aren't supposed to have affairs With her flowing blonde hair, credible accent, and old-fashioned beauty, she communicates the passion, strength and disappointment of Hyman's mother, who did not really love her husband (deftly by Ron Kagan, a Laguardia High grad as well as M.F.A from the conservatory at FSU, Asolo Repertory Theater).

Or did she? THE MAR VISTA offers no easy answers. Charlie, a proud but shy tailor who lacks his father's gregarious spirit, presents Sara with an exquisite blue gown during their courtship. Their charmingly awkward first date is redeemed, narrowly, by a highball after a show at a nightclub (in which Sara dances with the singer and sees another lover who has lied to her about being ill and unable to join her). Only the dress suggests that Charlie understands her soul and her body, though she repeatedly says he "isn't romantic."

Dwight Richardson Kelly, Amanda Rose Schussel, Yehuda Hyman
(photo credit: Paula Court)

It's clear that Sara settled for Charlie, partly to remain in America and partly because other prospects didn't pan out. In the second act, we discover that the two never touched each other after his birth. Nor, in the wake of a car crash, did they socialize or even leave the house at night. In one of the play's most poignant scenes, Sara takes young Hyman to a movie in Hollywood because Charlie, in a rare flash of temper, refuses to leave the house. Three buses and 90 plus minutes later, the mother and son arrive at the majestic theater and eat baklava at a restaurant where the vivacious then middle-aged and no longer svelte Sara dances joyously.

Rarely does a play written about an aging or dead parent transcend therapeutic theatrical exercise and rise to the status of art. THE MAR VISTA does, partly because Hyman does not play himself for much of the show. He stands on the sidelines, directing (and sometimes commenting on) the action, which gives a meta dimension to the story. The the play is both about the family saga and about the making of a story about that saga. As such, it raises large questions about marriage, cultural assimilation, grief, and the struggle for joy in a world that works so relentlessly against joy. To this end, there Jewish humor aplenty (a joke about cremation that only a Jew would get-or at least, laugh at). The surprising final scene--the first mention of Hyman's sexual orientation--is both bittersweet and funny.

For the son of immigrants who spoke with accents and ate unfamiliar food, childhood was not easy. Dwight Richardson Kelly, who studied fine art, film, and psychology at Sarah Lawrence, is at 6' 4" an unlikely choice to play the 8-year-old Hyman, but gets just right the little boy's innocent spirit (he's also convincing as two of Sara's early suitors: the caddish Russian suitor and the wealthy surgeon). Art becomes the Hyman's refuge (an aquatic dance set to the James Bond theme, for instance). Sara's terpsichorean longings become her son's quest and our gain: THE MAR VISTA is storytelling and off-off Broadway at its finest.

The Mar Vista runs through December 18th. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are available at 646-395-4310 or