Theater troupe makes dramatic house calls in living rooms

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The full cast of Salon Ariel: Danielle Lenee, Alana Gerlach, Miriam White, Ed Gavin and Lauren Berman. (Photo: Jill Jacobs)

On one of last winter's snowy nights, playgoers arrived at the door of a Bala Cynwyd home, shed their jackets and boots, and took their seats - in this case, bridge chairs scattered around a living room.

At "curtain time" - although the only curtains were on the windows - Deborah Baer Mozes, a petite woman with a megawatt smile, greeted those assembled, and gave a brief orientation.

It was showtime at Salon Ariel - a theater troupe that makes house calls, if you will - and at the front of the room were the actors who would be performing a reading of a full-length play called Hungry Heart.

The latest iteration of intimate, in-home performances - think home concerts - Salon Ariel hopes to fill a void in the theater world.

"This salon concept really evolved out of necessity," explains Baer Mozes, founder, director, and dramaturge of the area's only professional theater dedicated to "illuminating the social, cultural, and spiritual heritage of the Jewish people." According to the international Association for Jewish Theatre, it's the only one in the state.

Baer Mozes has the background for such a role: former literary manager for the Walnut Street Theatre; directing and teaching theater in Israel; and currently serving as director of culture at the Consulate General of Israel's Philadelphia office.

While the salons are new, the company goes back to 1990 (then called Theatre Ariel) and has since created or commissioned 68 works for more than 100,000 audience members. "We used actual theater spaces, especially the Walnut Street Theatre's studio areas, but scheduling was always tricky," recalled Baer Mozes.

Ariel's next iteration was as a touring company, with frequent gigs at synagogues and regional Jewish community centers. Despite reaching thousands of people, traveling far was complicated and exhausting. And when the recession deepened between 2008 and 2012, many venues cut staff - and programs.

In 2012, Baer Mozes hit on the salon concept, and now performs four plays annually. Next year the salon hopes to add an additional play for young families and children.

Still, there are challenges. Turning a home into a performance space isn't always easy - and finding willing hosts also can be tricky, although Baer Mozes emphasizes that Ariel doesn't need mansions.

Typically, 25 or 30 audience members are accommodated, and the hosts usually provide chairs and light refreshments. Because shows typically run over two weekends, with two performances each weekend, four homes are sought.

On that snowy night, hosts Linda Ronis Kass and Jon Kass enjoyed having their living room transformed, not to mention witnessing the reactions of the audience in post-play discussions with actors and playwright.

Hungry Heart - which chronicles the life and times of writer Anzia Yezierska, and presents a portrait of immigrant life on New York's Lower East Side - was written by Dennis Moritz, and although he has had more than 30 works performed at local theaters, including Hedgerow, the Painted Bride, and the Annenberg Center, the salon environment provides a unique experience for him.

Performed by professional actors Susan Moses, Hannah Gold, and Joe Guzman, with stage directions read by Amanda Banner, it moved many audience members to share their own family histories.

"It does matter so much to get feedback because a play is an organic thing," said Moritz in a post-play interchange. "This one went from a one-person to a three-person show through the development process."

Next on Ariel's agenda is Denial, written by Peter Sagal - wry host of NPR's Wait Wait . . . Don't Tell Me! but also a serious playwright.

On May 2 and 3, two homes on the Main Line will host a legal drama about a Holocaust denier, a plot loosely based on a Northwestern University engineering professor's 1973 "scholarly work" that he called "The Hoax of the 20th Century."

During a phone interview, Sagal, based in Chicago, expressed his gratitude the play will come alive in a salon setting. "The real protagonist is a Jewish attorney who has been asked by the American Civil Liberties Union to represent the propagandist," Sagal explained.

While Sagal won't be able to attend, he anticipates the outcome. "I expect that there will be a pretty lively conversation about the issues, and that makes me very happy."

A graduate of Harvard University who was deeply affected by 1993's Schindler's List, Sagal wrote the piece during a playwright fellowship in Minnesota. "I was especially fascinated by the idea that if you're an academic, you can dress yourself up in those robes and get away with a lot more than the average guy."

For Baer Mozes, this is precisely the sort of play that is well-suited to the Ariel format: Watch, discuss as a group, and then continue informally and over dessert. "And hopefully learn," she adds.

While people might not talk to strangers about a play in a theater setting, they're much more likely to do it in a home. Baer Mozes said that's been one of the most gratifying things for guests, and also for hosts - and neither need to be Jewish.

Rosa Esquenazi and her husband, Albert, both natives of Mexico City, first learned of Ariel through a friend who serves on the Ariel board.

"I grew up in a family that was not formally educated," Rosa explained, "but they were deeply into the arts. I remember how groups would get together in our home to talk about ideas, and how the spirit was so wonderful."

That feeling returned, she says, when her Society Hill home was host to a performance of Hungry Heart in February.

"My husband and I saw it as a wonderful gift to our home and a privilege for us that also honored my parents and grandparents."

 


Visit www.theatreariel.org to reserve tickets: $36. The next performances will be at homes on the Main Line: May 2 at 9 p.m. and May 3 at 7 p.m.

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