Bad Jews is part way through its Australia tour having just finished the Melbourne and Sydney Seasons (read Alana’s Review here) with Brisbane and Perth still to come. This very funny show has some serious themes – heritage, identity and family. Two cousins meet after their grandfather’s funeral, they are in a battle for a treasured family heirloom that has religious significance. Theatre Now‘s Lynden Jones got a chance to chat to the actors from the show.
Simon Cornfield describes Liam as “a self-assured, self-entitled, liberal-minded intellectual. He prides himself on being open minded and a deep thinker. He is culturally inclusive with a forward thinking philosophy on humanity and religion. But he really doesn’t have a sense of humour and he always thinks he is right. He spends a lot of the play trying to keep the lid on his quick temper.”
According to Maria Angelico, Daphna considers herself to be the ‘Good’ Jew. She is quite self-righteous. “She sees everything in black and white. She is opinionated, very intelligent and quick witted. She could have been a stand up comedian if she wasn’t so aggressively traditional. She is very fundamental.”
Matt Whitty plays Liam’s brother and Daphna’s cousin Jonah. “He falls right into the middle of the warring cousins and is caught in their crossfire”. He wants to avoid conflict and spends a lot of his time trying to stay out of the way.” When asked if he successfully manages to avoid taking sides, Matt responds “I don’t think anyone manages to do anything successfully in this play which is part of the comedy of it”.
Playing Melody, the non-Jewish girlfriend of Liam is Anna Burgess. “It is still early stages of the relationship between Liam and Melody and she has only met some of the family, so it is unfortunate that Melody finds herself thrown into this very difficult moment…Melody just wants everyone to get along, she is a beautiful soul. She is the peacemaker and comes into the play wanting everyone to like her and to get a long”. She has been warned about Daphna but nothing could have prepared her for what she is now facing.
So the stage is set for an epic battle between the cousins. Daphna and Liam infuriate each other. Cornfield says “She has always annoyed him growing up. He sees her as self-righteous and full of religious fervor. “‘owning’ her Jewish heritage; carrying it around like a badge”. Angelico agrees “Daphna has returned from Israel very passionate about her heritage and she does wear her Judaism like a badge of honour. She is aggressively religious.”
How do the other two respond to this battle? “Jonah is the heart of the piece” says Whitty, “He is the one that doesn’t do anything mean or cruel and is actually just quite a caring loyal person – loyal to his family and his religion”. So Anna, what about Melody? “I don’t think in any time in her life has Melody met someone like Daphna. She keeps stepping into Daphna’s traps. In order to share and communicate, she ends up giving Daphna so much to use back against Liam. Unknowingly starting these wars between them. She tries to start up conversations, to begin a healing of the situation and ends up bringing up the very things that ignite the arguments between them…. If only she could just shut her mouth.”
But what lies at the core of this play? Cornfield responds “For me the play is having a conversation with the audience about who is the ‘bad’ Jew? Is it someone who has rejected their traditions and religion or someone who tries to push their, often extreme, ideas onto other people – convinced that everyone else is wrong. It is a very funny and hilarious look at something that is quite serious. It has implications far wider than its Jewish setting. Rejection of heritage versus religious extremism.”
There is also the family structure and the loss of a pivotal member of the family. “In a family that is so structured around a hierarchy, losing a pivotal member leaves everyone struggling to sort out who is in charge and how do they carry on their tradition. What do they take with them as they move on and what do they let go of. That is what makes the play so relatable.” says Maria.
“It is also about cultural heritage”, Simon adds, “A new generation, currently in their twenties already losing touch with their history. Their grandfather survived the holocaust but this generation is losing the weight of the tragedy that the earlier generation has carried with them. “To Liam his grandfather’s experience is important and he still holds an interest in it, but it does not define him. Daphne, like most before her, allows it to define her completely.”
What resonates with you about your characters? Simon quickly replies, “Liam’s philosophy on humanity. Liam is inclusive. People should not be divided by religion or race. That resonated with me a lot”. Whitty relates to the caring loyal side of Jonah. “Loyal to his family and his religion.” I am very much a family person. Being one of eleven children you have to be. That’s eleven children… no twins and one marriage…It was a very chaotic household and as a result I was very much the placid, stay-out-of-trouble one”.
“Daphna has a wonderful sense of humour and I have some of that” says Maria “although I am not as bitter and cruel with it as she can be. Some of her dialogue is hilarious and quite funny and I can really relate to that. I think at the heart of it she, like all the family, are grieving for their grandfather and they are trying to figure out how they can restructure the dynamics of the family. I can relate to the experience of the chaos and strangeness that comes after losing a family member.”
Anna responds to the peacekeeping nature of Melody “I am someone who wants people to feel loved and to try and keep the peace, but I am certainly not as unknowing as Melody. If someone was picking on me as much as Daphna does for a bit of fun, I think I would stand up for myself a little more. But then she is in a new family while they are suffering grief, that makes you hold back on impulses sometimes. Also Melody really doesn’t understand a lot of what is going on around her in relation to some of the Jewish issues and traditions. I think I might have done a little more research to understand what I was about to step into. That is the thing with Melody, she is just so blissfully unaware. A little naive.”
Which leads us to the differences and difficulties. “I am very different to Daphna in so many ways”, says Maria. “She thinks at about three times the pace that I do. Which has been quite a challenge, its a workout to play a role like this, she speaks at such a very fast rate.”. Simon agrees, “The self entitled, quick tempered neurotic anxiety that comes along with Liam is difficult to maintain – It is very wearing. It can be quite stressful…As an actor you get carried along with the rehearsals and preparation but it doesn’t take too long to suddenly realise it is having an affect…After a couple of shows I suddenly realised I was so tired – my whole body was tired…You need to go and do a yoga class or something to get it out of the system”.
On the challenges of the play Simon says “The most difficult thing in the play for me was finding the nuances and rhythms; the patterns of speech. Becoming so comfortable with them that I could convincingly respect and honour the archetypes of Jewish comedy, that was challenging. But it was also one of the most fun experiences of this process.”
Looking back at their backgrounds, this group of actors have had some extraordinary experiences.
Simon is one of the creators, designers and performers of the performance group Sands Through The Hourglass. They won the Fringe festival a few years ago and from there were picked up to do the show at The Old Fitz. They continued their success with a series of pop-up shows. One show in Melbourne was seen by the artistic director of Schaubühne’s Festival of International New Drama. He was so impressed he asked them to come over to Berlin and create a world premiere. After development and rehearsals, ‘The One-Eyed Man is King‘ premiered to a huge response and the extended season sold out.
As for Matt it was after graduating drama school when he was selected for Red Stitch‘s ‘Emerging Actor Graduate’ program. The famous and well-respected Melbourne theatre company selects one graduate every year from a group of Melbourne acting schools. After finishing Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) in 2012 Matt auditioned and was the lucky graduate that was offered a spot. “It was an incredible opportunity. I had four lead roles on the Red Stitch stage in my first year out of VCA… It was an amazing year of real training and work”
Through High School Maria received a scholarship from the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC). “I was nominated by my high school drama teacher. It was a scholarship offered to performing arts students…They select a group of about ten from different schools and we went to the MTC every day. I had no idea that they had nominated me and I was so grateful to her for doing that… It was a poignant experience for me as a teenager. I knew I loved performing but it was the first time I got to experience a deeper sense of theatre and theatre studies. It was not just a standard school musical experience. We did impulse work and vocal training and so much more. It was a week-long workshop and we worked each day on techniques and processes and at the end we did a little performance. It was wonderful. It really opened up my eyes and I truly fell in love with performing arts.”
Simon responds with. “Its a funny thing. It is another Jewish New Yorker, Arnold Becker in Torch Song Trilogy.” A role he performed in 2013 at the Darlinghurst Theatre Company. “It was one of the most extraordinary experiences I have had in the theatre. It is similar to this play in that it managed to generate a conversation about important issues. The audience would walk out thinking and talking about them, just as they do after Bad Jews…. It is so nice to be in a play that can shift people’s viewpoints and mindsets.”
Matt’s favourite role so far would be from the Red Stitch stage. “The play was called Fox Finder. “The role was amazing. It was vastly different to this one” Set in Yorkshire, Foxfinder was an imagined vision of post-downfall-of-society Britain and Matt played the sinister William Bloor – the Foxfinder. It was a bit of a break out performance for Matt so it is no wonder it is one of his favourites.
Maria loves comedy. “I seem to be getting more and more work doing it. I like playing roles where I get to expand myself, like with this character. I recently worked on a web series called Footballer Wants A Wife and it was a very silly little role-playing a WAG wannabe. It was ridiculous and so much fun. It is so much fun playing a character that is so far from myself and have the license to be ridiculous.”
Anna keeps changing her favorite role. “I miss characters very much. If you have really found them as an actor, you will miss them. They are your friend and they thank you for bringing them to life. There is definitely a mourning process after the show is over. This time I am lucky as I am working on another play at the same time as this. I am doing Proof in Melbourne on our month break. She is a beautiful character.
This leads us into another topic with Anna. The life of an actor and the roles you play. “It is a strange thing with the life of an actor, you are saying goodbye to a character after every production. You are also saying goodbye to a team of actors and crew that you have spent so long with. It is very intimate in that journey when you are finding a character. You are going through a gambit of emotions that you would not necessarily experience in a normal workplace so you become very close and intimate with those going on the journey with you. My brother said to me the there day, when I finish my job as a chemical engineer I don’t get applause. I thought that is very true. Then I said to him, I have so many moments of unemployment sometimes I just need that applause.
Who inspires you? Matt responds, “I am inspired by filmmakers who tell important stories, especially ones that delve into what it is to be human. A filmmaker like Steve MacQueen (12 Years a Slave, Hunger, Shame) is a massive source of inspiration for my work.
For Maria, “I am really lucky to have really beautiful strong close friends and family. My two older sisters are both beautiful. They inspire me to be a better person. I was also raised on Saturday Night Live. I grew up with Lily Tomlin, Tina Fey, Amy Pollock and was completely inspired by their work. I am inspired by so may people”.
Anna finds that there is a particular trait in those people that inspire her. “There is no one standout. I respect so many people and everyone is so different – their way of working is so different, but it always goes back to the work… I am inspired by those people that work hard and do not stop working…My dear, best friend is Gretel Scarlett who is currently the lead in the (Australian production of) Singing In The Rain. She is the hardest worker. Then there is Reg Livermore, who I worked with when I was 23. He is such a hard worker and so funny. That is what I want, that work ethic. You can have talent and whatever but it is what you do from there…Tony Sheldon is another one. These people are workhorses. They have reached the pinnacle and yet they do not stop working. If you follow that work ethic you are never bored, you are inspired to keep working harder. There is no ‘I am here, I have made it’ its all a journey.
Bad Jews continues in Brisbane: 13th July – 31st July and finishes its tour in Perth: 9th August – 14th August.
Theatre Now reviewed Bad Jews in Sydney. Read Alana’s Review here