Wednesday, March 10, 2010
What Happens in Shushan Stays in Shushan
For the third year in a row I attended the Purim pageant "Folies Esthere" organized by the New Shul in Greenwich Village.
The pageant and costume party reenacts the story from the book of Esther of King Ahasuerus of the Persian empire and his queens Vashti and Esther in ancient Shushan (Susa). The King demands his queen Vashti submit to his whim and prove her fealty by dancing naked before him. She refuses and is driven out. The King chooses from all the women of Shushan young Esther to be his new Queen. Unbeknownst to him, Esther is a Jew. When the evil henchman Haman, advisor to the King, has a run in with Mordecai, leader of the Jews, Haman swears revenge against the Jews and tells the King he must have them all killed as a danger to his rule. Esther intervenes, makes the King refuse to harm her people, and then reveals her people are the Jews. Haman is executed for his evil treachery, and a celebration ensures, involving the sharing of delicious hamantaschen cookies.
It's a profound ritual: the reenactment of the story combined with recitations of holy texts are the sort of one-two punch I'm used to from my Pagan days that make it possible to internalize the lessons of the pageant and transform a performance into a spiritual experience. The pageant is participatory: a costume party is organized for the event and noisemakers are waved about every time the name of the evil Haman is mentioned. Despite a thread of Jewish ancestry, I'm not Jewish and so I don't know what it's like to grow up with this sort of ritual. It's certainly earthier--and more revenge filled--than the average Christmas pageant.
What makes the New Shul's Purim celebration unique, though, is that this liberal, family-oriented congregation with lots of children and members of all ages, has chosen to transform the ritual into a challenging experience on many levels, not least of which is its embrace of complete genderfuck. Queen Vashti has, for these three years, been portrayed by my drag queen friend Candy Samples. King Ahasuerus is portrayed by a drag king; and this year in fact every role from Esther to Mordecai to Haman is portrayed by a member of the opposite gender. The cantor singing the sacred text was an evening-gown clad woman. (Photo of Candy from Lisa Teiger)
Candy/Queen Vashti was accompanied by two "Vashti Vixens," fellow drag queens, who sang Candy's new song "Promise of a New Year" and later, after Queen Vashti refused to submit to the King's will to bare herself except for her crown, a medley of Mama Cass's "Make Your Own Kind of Music" with the theme from the Mary Tyler Moore show.
Before Haman is executed, transformed into a GI Joe doll hanging from the balcony by a noose, s/he issues an impassioned warning that s/he, Haman, represents the dark wickedness potential in all of us, something we must constantly guard against and uproot. As the GI Joe doll swings, darkly hilarious and disturbing, the community begins to sing "Once there was a wicked wicked man, and Haman was his name..." Justice wins out and bad people who would scapegoat others for their problems -- in this case the Jews -- are defeated. Powerful stuff.
The gender-switched pageant is funny but completely reverent. I'm trying to wrap my head around the intentions of the New Shul for setting it up this way. Is it just in the costume-party tradition of Purim and with reference to the (once upon a time) gay identity of the Village? Much to ponder.