Arts production gives “Abraham” a modern spin

"Abraham & Isaac in Jerusalem," a new Claire Trevor School of the Arts production about faith, aims to bring people together — in the theater and real world.

It’s an old story, one handed down through the centuries in sacred texts: As the ultimate test of faith, a father is called on — by God — to kill his own son.

Now UC Irvine’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts has given the venerable tale a modern spin with the world premiere of “Abraham & Isaac in Jerusalem.” Written and directed by Robert Cohen, Claire Trevor Professor of Drama, it’s a play within a play about American college students who travel to Jerusalem to present a medieval drama about Abraham.

The show, which runs Wednesday, Sept. 29, through Saturday, Oct. 2, at the Claire Trevor Theatre, features ancient Hebrew, English and Persian music performed by UCI’s all-male singing ensemble, Men in Blaque. Cohen, in fact, was inspired to write the play when he saw the group in concert.

“One of the great goals of theater is to bring synthesis to people, to show we’re not that different from each other,” Cohen says. “The story of Abraham and Isaac is included in the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Koran. It transcends three different religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We’re hoping the play clarifies how misunderstandings can set people apart and shows there can be resolution.”

He says “Abraham” is not a heavy political drama. Besides music, it has comedy. Someone even plays a donkey, and “it’s the best donkey portrayal I’ve seen in years,” jokes stage manager Joel Veenstra.

Still, Cohen hopes the play demonstrates how people divided by religious and cultural issues can find a basis for mutual understanding. “Theater has a way of bringing people together from many cultures,” he says.

The production also brings together the audience; most theatergoers will be seated onstage around a tiered stone set representing Jerusalem’s Rova square, next to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall.

Like the play’s characters, those involved in “Abraham” come from different ethnic and religious backgrounds.

“I’m Jewish by heritage, and my wife is a worship elder in the Presbyterian Church. Our set designer is from Tehran. We have actors of all faiths,” Cohen says.

The drama caused some of them to examine their own ideas about religion.

“When we first started rehearsing, we discussed the play’s meaning. I struggled with the belief in a God who would test Abraham like this and cause him to question his faith so much,” says Alison Plott, a third-year M.F.A. acting student who portrays the troupe’s director and an angel who intercedes to stop the sacrifice of Isaac.

“This play is about man’s relationship with God and the struggle with faith. It’s a story people have strong feelings about. The focus is how we reconcile these different groups’ feelings.”

The production also caused cast members to think more about the Middle East conflict, Plott says: “The play within the play is stopped quite often by two characters — a Hebrew translator and an Arabic translator. They say things like ‘You can’t do that’ or ‘You can’t say that — you don’t understand the politics here.’ So we had some discussions about what the political climate is like over there.”

Many UCI students have had similar discussions, sharing perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through such forums as the Olive Tree Initiative. (Like the students in the play, the Olive Tree students have traveled to Jerusalem, where they too learned more about Middle East issues and people.)

“We’re playing American actors who know less about the conflict in the Middle East than we actually know,” says Jesse Easley, a third-year student in the M.F.A. acting program who plays Abraham.

“In the play, we represent a little bit of an arrogant American point of view, which is: ‘Hey, why don’t you guys just shake hands and fix it?’ The more I’ve thought about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the more I realize it’s not that easy to do; the issues run so deep. But this play definitely shows that the core values of different religions are pretty similar — there is common ground.”

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