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Waad Mohammed as a Saudi girl in search of a bicycle in Wadjda

Waad Mohammed as a Saudi girl in search of a bicycle in Wadjda

By Richard Ades

Patriarchy is in the crosshairs at two Bexley area venues. A groundbreaking Saudi Arabian film is launching a sneak attack at the Drexel Theatre while, a few blocks to the south, a familiar tale is walking the boards at the Jewish Community Center.

The play is Yentl, best known as the source material of a 1983 movie musical starring Barbra Streisand. Written by Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer, the stage version differs significantly from the Streisand vehicle but still focuses on a young Jewish Pole who changes her identity in order to study scripture.

Yentl (Adelaide Feibel) learns the joys of scholarship thanks to her rabbi-father (Frederick M. Luper), who teaches her the Torah in secret because such knowledge is meant only for boys. After his death, she disguises herself as a young man named Anshel and joins a yeshiva to continue her studies.

From this point, the play largely sets aside the underlying issue of gender inequality and focuses on gender identity. Yentl/Anshel becomes study partners with Avigdor (Daniel Shtivelberg) and stumbles into a relationship with his ex-fiancée, Hadass (Rachel Gaunce). This sets up complicated questions whose answers are hard to sort out in the current Gallery Players production.

One problem is that talented high-schooler Feibel seems overwhelmed by the challenging title role. Not only is she onstage almost constantly, but she has to play a girl who masquerades as a boy and is faced with conflicting and confusing emotions. Though Feibel gives a gutsy performance, it’s hard to read her character’s true feelings, as the portrayal mainly comes off as angry and defensive.

In general, director Steve Black’s production suffers from a lack of coherence. There are good performances in both large and small roles—Shtivelberg and Gaunce are both admirable—but there are also scenes in which actors stumble over lines or chew the scenery.

At the performance I attended, the audience unwittingly added to the problem by applauding every scene, no matter how short. Though the applause was meant to be supportive, it added to the feeling that the play was a collection of disparate parts rather than a coherent whole.

Meanwhile, at the Drexel, an unusual film is taking aim at the patriarchal elements of another religion. Set in Saudi Arabia, where a conservative interpretation of Islam prevents women from even obtaining driver’s licenses, Wadjda focuses on another girl who masquerades as someone she’s not.

Wadjda (an irresistible Waad Mohammed) is easy to spot in her all-girl school—she’s the one wearing worn sneakers under her ankle-length uniform. Though she would be a typical preteen in most parts of the world, Wadjda’s love of pop music and her tomboyish adventures with boy pal Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) mark her as a rebel in the school’s repressive atmosphere.

Then two things happen that change her life: (1) She spots a beautiful bicycle that she decides she must have, even though cycling is considered hazardous to a girl’s virtue. And (2) the school announces a Quran competition whose prize money is almost identical to the bike’s cost. The enterprising girl immediately undertakes a study of Islam’s holy book, fooling the school’s staff into thinking she’s suddenly found religion.

Directed by Haifaa Al Mansour, the film also focuses on Wadjda’s mother (Reem Abdullah), a woman with her own set of problems. She attempts to live by her society’s strict rules, which mean covering up from head to toe and hiring a foreign-born driver when she wants to venture outside the home. But she’s increasingly feeling the sting of patriarchy, particularly because her loving but largely absent husband (Sultan Al Asaaf) is planning to take a second wife who can give him the son he needs to carry on his bloodline.

The mother’s emotional conflicts are shown in subtle ways, as in the primping she engages in before putting on a garment that hides her handiwork from the public. Similarly, Wadjda’s feelings toward her situation—her father’s imminent remarriage and the increasing strictures she’s expected to follow—must be gleaned from her expressive eyes.

Wadjda carries two distinctions: It’s the first full-length film made entirely in Saudi Arabia, and it’s the first feature directed by a Saudi woman. But its most important distinction is the disarming and subtly powerful way in which it depicts the ordeal of growing up female in a patriarchal society.

Gallery Players (in conjunction with Fort Hayes Black Box Theatre Company) will present Yentl through Nov. 3 at the Jewish Community Center, 1125 College Ave. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20 ($15 JCC members), $18 seniors ($13 JCC members), $10 students and children. 614-231-2731 or http://columbusjcc.org/programs/cultural-arts/gallery-players/.

Wadjda will be screened through Oct. 31 at the Drexel Theatre, 2254 E. Main St. Show times: 4:30, 7:30 and 9:45 p.m., plus 11 a.m. and 1:45 p.m. Wednesday. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes. Tickets: $5-$9. Rating: 5 stars (out of 5). Drexel.net.

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