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Curtain Up!  Biblical brothers at the heart of a new play in West Hartford

By Cindy Mindell

Ben Engel

Ben Engel

WEST HARTFORD – The story is 3,500 years old, yet it continues to captivate with its enduring themes of sibling rivalry and parental favoritism. A new dramatic interpretation, Jacob and Esau: The Birthright. The Blessing. The Confrontation, debuts in a staged reading on Sunday, Nov. 23 at The Emanuel Synagogue in West Hartford.

The story provides rich emotional material for a writer.

“There is deception, there is rage, there is the thirst for revenge and the fear of confrontation,” says playwright Ben Engel of West Hartford. “When I wrote Jacob and Esau, I kept thinking about what would be in the minds and hearts of the characters, what dilemmas and struggles they were experiencing during these events, and I tried to bring that out.” Engel says he composed the play in verse “to help transport the audience to a different time and place.”

This is the first play by Engel, an Emanuel member who created the work as a creative fundraiser for the synagogue that would also appeal to the wider community.

The staged reading also marks the debut of The Emanuel Players, the newest addition to the synagogue’s arts and cultural programming.

Now an attorney with Rogin Nassau LLC in Hartford, Engel began writing in elementary school and originally pursued a career as a newspaper reporter and editor in Kentucky and Connecticut. About 20 years ago, he began to take an interest in the works of the ancient Greek authors, and in recent years, in the great Greek tragic playwrights.

In 2012, Engel learned that the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago was staging a recreation of the trial of Socrates as a fundraiser, with a cast of the city’s leading judges and attorneys and a jury of distinguished Chicagoans.

“I instantly saw that we could do an Emanuel fundraiser based on ancient Hebrew history,” Engel says. “Right after that, I realized how much I would love to write a play.”

He was inspired by the story of Jacob and Esau for several reasons.

“First of all, it takes place within a family and if there is trouble, there is no easy exit; there’s natural tension and emotion that you can exploit on stage,” he says. “Secondly, there is conflict. Sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau is the most obvious. But there is also conflict between Isaac and Rebekah. Each has a favorite child. There is deception, there is rage; there is the thirst for revenge and the fear of confrontation. It’s all there in the Bible complete with dramatic twists and turns. One thing I did not have to do in this play is invent the plot.”

Beyond dramatizing the story, Engel says that he wanted to present two philosophical issues for people to consider: Are we justified in deceiving other people in order to serve what we take to be the will of God? And, if we are wronged, when should we retaliate, and when should we reconcile?

“These questions still come up today in our own lives,” he says. “Answers may not exist, but I hope to open eyes to the values and dilemmas involved.”

From the earliest times, writers have always mined basic human truths and behavior as fodder for their work.

“Thousands of years ago, people felt rage, fear, anxiety, hope, love – the whole range of emotions – and they perceived and thought and reasoned and felt and reacted to the world pretty much the way we do,” Engel says. “The first time I read Plato and the Talmud I was amazed at how sophisticated the logic was among these people we consider ‘ancient.’”

Yet, many Biblical characters aren’t fleshed out in the text, so a reader must infer thoughts and feelings, as Engel did while writing about Jacob and Esau. While on that artistic journey, he was especially struck by the process of reconciliation. “I kept thinking about what would be in the minds and hearts of the characters, what dilemmas and struggles they were experiencing during these events, and I tried to bring that out,” he says.

 

Jacob and Esau: The Birthright. The Blessing. The Confrontation by Ben Engel: Sunday, Nov. 23, 7 PM, The Emanuel Synagogue, 160 Mohegan Drive, West Hartford. For tickets and information, call (860) 236-1275 or visit www.emanuelsynagogue.org.

 

Comments? email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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