Jewish Journal

Friend of the Devils

by Keren Engelberg

Posted on Jan. 20, 2005 at 7:00 pm

Nicole Berger and Chris Johnson

Nicole Berger and Chris Johnson


Nicole Berger's empathy for demons began early in life."I'm always fascinated by the falling of a soul or the sensitive tender side of an evil character," she said. "When I saw 'The Exorcist,' I thought, 'Why is this demon so screwed up?'"

That kind of empathy helps to explain the 32-year-old script analyst and independent filmmaker's most recent enterprise, a play called, "Yiddish She-Devils," that runs this weekend only at the Santa Monica Playhouse, as part of the "Save the Playhouse" campaign.

Consisting of two one-act plays, "She-Devils" seeks to reinterpret medieval Jewish folktales as comedic morality plays. Stories in which female characters are literally demonized are recast more objectively, forcing the audience to consider the demon's point of view. All the while, Jewish references pop up, creating what Berger describes as "a kind of gestalt," or her own "stream of consciousness association with Jewish culture."

The result is a simultaneously celebratory and subversive take on Jewish tradition perhaps more likely to speak to a younger Jewish generation trying to connect with their Yiddishkayt. Berger said that while she has a huge appreciation for the culture and spirituality of Judaism, she also takes personal issue with the limited roles in which female characters are cast.

"The good wife or the demon wife ... I think they're debilitating roles and women can't blossom spiritually and intellectually with those roles being cast on us," she said.

As the child of a mixed-marriage, she also wanted to draw attention to "how it can be painful for some people with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother to be shunned by Jewish society." The two stories she chose to retell -- based on "The Cellar" a.k.a. "The Man Who Married a She-Devil" and "Demon of the Waters" -- confront just those issues.

Concurrently, Berger also celebrates a rich Jewish cultural tradition, incorporating a varied assortment of Jewish historical nods. "She-Devils" includes Yiddish music like the Catskills-style "Joe and Paul" and pays tribute to another ghostly shtetl story, "The Dybbuk," by incorporating a character named Azriel. Taking the tributes one step further, Berger said her dream when she wrote "She-Devils" was for it to be performed at the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights.

"It's the oldest synagogue in L.A. and it's defunct now," she said. "I'd love to bring some life back into it, plus I'm sure there are some spirits living there just like in all old buildings."

Santa Monica Playhouse. 8 p.m. (Jan. 20 and 22), 3 p.m. (Jan. 23). $15. Rated PG-13. 1211 Fourth St. (310) 394-9779, ext. 1391.


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