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Local playwright presents adaptation of Biblical tales

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Local playwright presents adaptation of Biblical tales


News Arts Writer

     "Names are very important with me," says Ann Arbor playwright Rachel Urist.  "I've always believed in the force of names, because people identify with their namesakes."

     That's one reason Urist says she took special delight in writing  "Blueprint,"  which she defines as a "surreal" adaptation of three Bible tales - Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Rachel ("I somehow feel her story is my story") and the story of Hannah from the Book of Samuel.  The Readers Theater production opens next Friday at Performance Network.

     The playwright says she's infused the trio of ancient narratives with a decidedly contemporary slant, both in situations and in language.  "Three actors play the roles of all 14 characters," says Urist.  "that's part of what I mean by surreal.  The language of the play moves back and forth between the biblical and the very contemporary."

   "For instance, Isaac complains to his father (Abraham) that he can't have a hamburger and pickles. Or Rachel asks (husband) Jacob - who's on a park bench feeding pigeons - whether his other wife is good in bed?  In this version Hannah  (who prays to God for a child) is a former concentration camp inmate.  The High Priest (who scorns her entreaties) is a gynecologist."

     Urist's small, necessarily versatile cast includes Ann Arbor theater mainstay Nancy Heusel and singer-actor Larry Henkel, whose robust Tevye roused local audiences last October in "Fiddler on the Roof."  Stephanie Hilbert will direct the production which, Urist adds, will involve distinctly more than traditional sit-on-a-stool readers theater.

     "(Hilbert) has done so much Readers Theater that she knows all kinds of tricks that we never would have thought of," Urist said.  "We started off thinking it was going to be simple readers theater.  Well, the more we rehearsed, the more complicated it got.  Stephanie devised blocking for some of the scenes.  It's definitely going to be more elaborate than the usual format."

     An early draft of  "Blueprints" was read publicly last May at Performance Network.  "It was a very different version then," Urist points out.  "There were four stories, not three.  One of those stories I threw out.  I threw out a quarter of the play, and I rewrote a lot of the rest.

     “The only really biblical stuff in it is the narrations, plus some bits of reverie that Abraham goes off into from time to time. Isaac promptly makes fun of him for doing it.”

     Preparing the play involved nearly as much scholarly study as it did creative writing, says Urist. “I re-translated the biblical stuff in part. Before writing the play, I spent about three months just studying Torah.” She says the task proved a pleasure more than a drudgery. “It was just old-fashioned learning. I loved that.”

Playwright Urist has plenty to be happy about these days: Her one-acter “Going Up” won the New York’s 1983 John Gassner Memorial Playwriting Competition, and her subsequent “Off and Running” won the Jacksonville University Playwriting Contest last spring. Both plays are set for production next spring at New York’s Eccentric Circles Theater.

Would Urist like to see “Blueprint” performed in a conventional theater mode as well? “Absolutely,” she says. “It’s meant to be a regular stage show.”

'Blueprint' will be performed Friday through Sunday, Jan. 18-20, at Performance Network, 408 West Washington. Curtain is 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. (Sunday's performance will be followed by a discussion with the playwright and the cast, led by Robert Martin, a University of Michigan humanities professor.) For ticket information, call 663-0681.


Larry Henkel, Nancy Heusel, Jeffrey Seller and director Stephanie Hilbert rehearse 'Blueprint.'