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“Uriel Acosta: I Want That Man!”

at The Chocolate Factory Theater

Uriel Acosta
Mary Rasmussen, James Tiger! Ferguson &
J.H. Smith III

Created by Target Margin Theater and directed by David Herskovits

with Don Castro, James Tigger! Ferguson, Mary Rasmussen and J. H. Smith III

Review by Daniel Glenn

For as long as religious authorities have tried to police minds, the question has been asked: “Why is God letting me think these things if I'm not allowed to?” Uriel Acosta, a Jewish rebel in 17th century Amsterdam, posed this and other questions at the risk of his life. An adaptation from “myriad literary and historical sources,” this production features four actors sharing a variety of characters in a high-energy, inventive, collage-like depiction of an iconoclastic thinker.

Styles and forms are cycled through at a rapid pace. The actors parody melodrama or strike a tableau, then drop character and mumble about where to go get a snack. Old texts are translated into modern slang or broken up into a kind of poignant blackout poetry. And throughout it all, musical interludes and rock star moments bubble up infectiously.

Meanwhile, bits and pieces of narrative emerge. There's a love triangle, a recantation, a recantation of a recantation, and a nasty whipping. Yet it’s as if the company is following the advice of Emily Dickinson: tell all the truth, but tell it slant. Like the images projected onto dry ice—the show’s most brilliant effect—the important ideas are not pounded home but allowed to shine out of a verbal-visual mist. The audience is largely left to navigate their own way through this chaotic, Acosta-inspired theatrical landscape.

Much of this action is exciting, in part because the actors are all engaging. Seventy minutes, however, is a long time to ask an audience to row without a paddle. The moments that are most successful are the ones where the stakes and drama of the original story can be sensed, even incompletely. A song sung by Mary Rasmussen is completely compelling: it’s clear real emotion is being processed, even if what it means isn’t spelled out.

It’s very likely that a straight retelling of Uriel Acosta’s life would be too histrionic or too old-fashioned for contemporary audiences. Instead, Target Margin’s method prevents listeners from getting ahead of the tale, and gets to the heart of the mystery involved in all matters of faith. For that, for breathing life into a mostly lost piece of history, the company is to be commended.

Target Margin Theater has expertise with such work, and is coming to the end of an impressive two-year exploration of Yiddish Theater. Their product here is imperfect, leaving its audience in the dark too often, but it genuinely infuses a bit of the past with the vitality of the present. That is an often attempted but rarely achieved feat.

Uriel Acosta” runs through April 5 at The Chocolate Factory Theater, 5-49 49th Ave, Astoria. 212.352.3101.