Theater For The New City To Present PHARAOH By Misha Shulman

Character study of the villain of Exodus is rendered in Kathakali style.

By: Feb. 16, 2024
Theater For The New City To Present PHARAOH By Misha Shulman
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From March 15 to 31, Theater for the New City will present the world premiere of "Pharaoh" by Misha Shulman, a character study of the arch-villain of the Exodus story. The piece, which tells the biblical Exodus story from the perspective of the king of Egypt, is a work for two artists: Shulman, dressed in black, gives voice to all the characters, while Kalamandalam John, founder and Director of Kalatharangini Kathakali School in South India, performs the play in movement theater using vibrant traditional Indian dance drama and elaborate makeup.  Everything is in English.  Michael Posnick directs.

The production was inspired in 2008 when Shulman was in the village of Muzhikulam, Kerala to watch a fifteen-day play called the Asokavanikangam, or the Asoka Tree Garden, performed in the Kudiyatam, Sanskrit theater tradition. This Indian classic, taken from the Ramayana, the holy Hindu book, tells of how The arch-villain Ravana kidnaps the goddess Sita, taking her to his island of Lanka, and trying repeatedly to convince her to succumb to him. Shulman describes the experience as "riveting," "the slowest thing you’ve ever witnessed,” and “the best thing I had seen in my life.” Longing to make a parallel play of his own, Shulman imagined a staging of the Exodus story in which Jews could watch a play about the inner life of Pharaoh, their greatest enemy, modeled on Ravana and reimagined with Indian influences.

The piece ultimately evolved into a two-man production: a dialogue between a Pharaoh character performed in physical theater by Kalamandalam John, founder and Director of Kalatharangini Kathakali School in South India, and Misha Shulman, clad in black, voicing all the characters of the story including Pharaoh, Moses (stuttering), Pharaoh's son, wife and father; an Egyptian priest and Death. They are accompanied musically by Galen Passen on Sitar and Tripp Dudley on drums. Kalamandalam John performs with the elaborate costume, colorful makeup, intricate gestures and expressive facial movements of Kathakali.

The piece was initially envisioned to be performed by Shulman as a solo show, influenced by the spirit and style of Kudiyatam. It was workshopped in Toronto, where Shulman was playwright in residence of Crow's Theater. Later he had a staged reading at the 14th Street Y, where he was a LABA fellow. The project was set to premiere at Theater for the New City in March 2020 but was canceled due to the Covid shutdown.

Misha Shulman was ordained a rabbi in 2019. He is founding director of the School for Creative Judaism, a home for unaffiliated Jews that brings together religion, art and activism under the framework of Jewish tradition, and Rabbi of The New Shul ( He was raised in Jerusalem, the son of Anglo immigrants; his mother is from Canada and his father, a professor emeritus of Indian studies at Hebrew University, is from Iowa. Their home was filled with Indian culture and Hindu stories. Reflecting on the performance that inspired this play, he writes, "Never before had I seen such a happy marriage between art and religion. When the time came and I was confronted with the possibility of becoming a rabbi, I had a model for a type of religious leadership that I could adapt and emulate."

Shulman writes that exploring the inner world of Pharoah "offers both theological and political possibilities that go against the grain of Jewish tradition. The attitude toward Pharaoh is mirrored today in our greatest national anxieties and fears, as well as the defensiveness and self-righteousness that lie at the heart of our relationship with the world. The inability, or perhaps refusal of mainstream Judaism to see the Palestinian experience can, to my mind, be traced back to Pharaoh. The Exodus story is us versus them, with truth on our side and vanity and stubbornness on theirs. 'Them' is represented by Pharaoh, who gets beaten down to dust along with the rest of his people.  If we can reduce the greatest civilization of the ancient world to 'false' and 'cruel,' how easy it becomes to do the same to the Palestinian people. Terrorists at best, a non-existent people more likely.”

He continues, "For Jews, the current war has brought to light the terrifying urgency of reworking our relationship with victimhood and blame. Which pieces of our national psyche, we must ask, need be preserved, and which reshaped to fit the twenty-first century? By re-examining the story of our national birth, this play aims to offer a first step in that process.  Humanity seems to be at a crossroads: either we continue down this path of vilification of the other, or will we begin to see those we consider to be villains as human beings. In theological terms we ask: does the belief in one god mean that all other gods are false, or that everything and everyone are part of one great oneness?”

This is Shulman's sixth play produced by Theater for the New City. Before settling in New York, he served in the Israeli army as a Commander in charge of Education. His plays often confront Jewish ethical conundrums like national duty and collective guilt from the viewpoint of a liberal Israeli dissident. These include "Apricots," "The Fist," "Desert Sunrise" and "Martyrs Street." "The Fist" (2004) portrayed the dilemma of Israeli Army refuseniks. "Desert Sunrise" (2005) was deemed "A West Bank Godot" and described as "elegant and affecting" by George Hunka in The New York Times. "Apricots" (2009) was  a political Israeli-Palestinian comedy. "Martyrs Street" (2015) told the intertwining stories of two residences in Hebron, a city in the West Bank, that are about to be evacuated by the Israeli authorities. It won two playwriting competitions and received honorable mentions in two others.

In 2008, with "Brunch at the Luthers," Shulman forsook dramatic realism for Dada to challenge traditional concepts of meaning through the minutia in the lives of an absurd middle-aged couple. His "The Fake History of George the Last" (2010) metaphorically attacked the notion of the inevitability of violence throughout generations in an absurdist style that incorporated iconic imagery from the Book of Ecclesiastes. With "Deathscape" (2011), he employed puppet theater to analyze his dreams through archetypal political and religious symbols. As an actor, Shulman has performed in many plays around the world with the Living Theatre, with DADA New York, and at the Toronto Clown Festival.

Michael Posnick

Michael Posnick (Director) has helmed theater and musical productions at venues including Yale Rep, Manhattan Theatre Club and NY Philharmonic at Lincoln Center. He has been Artistic Director of Mosaic Theatre, at the 92nd Street Y and Director of the Department of Dance and Theater at Manhattanville College. He has taught at Yale Drama School, Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center; National Theatre of the Deaf and Hunter College. He is co-editor with Ellen Schiff, of "Seven Contemporary Jewish Plays" and translator/editor of a number of dramatic works in Hebrew. He was dramaturge of "Davenen," a production of Pilobolus Dance Theatre which played at the Kennedy Center and Joyce Theatre. He was co-producer of Frank London’s Cuban-Yiddish opera, "Hatuey: Memory of Fire." He earned his BA and MSEd from Yeshiva University and his MFA from Yale Drama School. He is currently on the faculty of School of Practical Philosophy, New York.

Dr. Kalamandalam John

Dr. Kalamandalam John is founder and Director of Kalatharangini Kathakali School. Born in Kerala in 1955, he trained in Kathakali for nine years, eight hours a day at Kerala Kalamandalam under Guru (professor) C. Padmanabhan Nair and Vijayakumar. He studied Sanskrit and Kathakali literature under Prof. Unnikrishnan Elayadu. In 1977 he was awarded the A.D. Bolland Gold medal for the best Kathakali student. In 1978 he was awarded the government of India scholarship. Since completing his course, he has worked as a teacher for both foreign and Indian students in Kerala Kalamandalam. As a member of the Kalamandalam troupe, he has toured all over India and abroad.  Dr. John is the first ever Christian Kathakali actor.  He includes "Kalamandalam" in his name since graduating from the fames school in 1977.

The Kalamandalam 

The Kalamandalam was founded in 1930 to preserve the cultural traditions of Kathakali, the stylized dance drama of Kerala. Kathakali is the classical dance-drama of Kerala, South India, which dates from the 17th century and is rooted in Hindu mythology. It is a unique combination of literature, music, painting, acting and dance performed by actors wearing extensive make up and elaborate costume who perform plays which retell in dance form stories from the Hindu epics. 

Misha Shulman writes, "The support and encouragement I've received from Theater for the New City has created in me a confidence not only in engaging the world and its wonders and problems theatrically, but also in searching for new ways to express that engagement. With opportunities I received nowhere else, it has shaped me as a playwright and even encouraged me to pursue a non-traditional approach to my rabbinical path, which infuses the faith world with the arts. Crystal Field's fierce commitment to exploring painful yet crucial truths, through her support for plays on Israel/Palestine and dozens of other issues, is brave, rare and deeply appreciated." 

Production coordinator is Susan Meyers.  Costumes and make up are by Dr. Kalatharangini Mary John. Stage Manager and Associate Director is Alysia Homminga.  Lighting Designer is Wheeler Moon.