At Chabad's Bais Chana High School on Pico Boulevard, a number of girls are sitting around a table with director Robin Garbose, reading through a new scene of "Portraits in Faith," their upcoming original musical. In the scene, a gold-digging wife tells her hapless husband that he no longer has any claim to his fortune and that she is going to use his money to party. The husband is Jewish, the wife is not, and her non-Jewishness infuses her with a particularly nasty streak of anti-Semitic superiority. It's a meaty scene, and though the girls are reading the lines for the first time, they are handling them with aplomb. The wife's malicious insults become more delightfully sinister in the reading, whereas the husband becomes the lame coward who gets weaker with every word.
On a dramatic level, the musical is a multigenerational historical drama that takes place in mid-19th-century Germany, and is replete with marital discord, class conflict and religious struggles. It highlights the dissonance between the Orthodox and the Reform. On an educational level, the play is a vehicle for the girls to become more self-confident and use their talents for performing arts in an environment that remains faithful to halachah. In keeping with the laws of Kol Isha, which prohibit a woman from singing in front of men for reasons of modesty, and tznius (general modesty) the play will be performed to audiences of women only. And the play itself is not just a drama -- it's a story with a moral. At the end of it, the audience is meant to appreciate the courage and dedication of Jewish women in keeping Torah alive through the ages and feel inspired about the beauty and the holiness of the mitzvah of going to the mikvah (ritual bath).
Garbose expects that at least 1,000 women will come out to see the play when it is performed on March 3, but judging from past audiences at other all-girl productions, that estimate seems conservative. In February, Bnos Esther, a small Chasidic girls' high school on Beverly Boulevard, put on an all-girl production called "Simply Not The Same." The theme of the play was the importance of Torah, and more than 1,000 women showed up to see it over two nights, a large number considering that Bnos Esther only has 50 girls in the entire high school. Last year Bais Yaakov High School performed their biennial "Halleli" -- an all-girl song, dance and drama fest -- and drew an audience of 4,000 women over two nights.
The reason for the great turnouts is clear. The plays cater to women and girls in the ultra-Orthodox community who restrict the amount of popular culture that they let into their lives, because of what they see as its irreligious and immodest content. Nevertheless, these women still want to be entertained, but they just don't want to compromise their religious principals in doing so.
"Most of the people who come to these things do not go to outside entertainment," said Chaya Shamie, the co-curricular director at Bais Yaakov and the producer of "Halleli." "This is an opportunity for them to go to an all-women's performance that is done in a Torah fashion, that follows all the [halachic] guidelines."
"These plays are the only shows that I would take my daughters to, because as innocent as so many things seem, there are many hidden cultural messages in the popular entertainment out there," said a mother of two girls from the Fairfax area. "I want my daughters' culture to be a Torah culture. It's very empowering for them because they see themselves up there in a few years."
For "Portraits in Faith," Garbose's husband, Levi, adapted a novel by Marcus Lehman, a 19th-century German writer who is something of a John Grisham of the Orthodox world. His books typically are plot-driven, hard-to-put-down novels that are infused with messages of faith. For the songs of the musical, Levi wrote original lyrics to Chasidic nigunim (wordless melodies). For the set design, Garbose plans on new visual possibilities using interesting lighting and some carefully chosen set pieces that will evoke the atmosphere of a different era and country without blowing the minimal budget that Bais Chana set aside for the play. All the girls in the school are involved in the play in some way, either as actresses, prop designers, costume makers, ticket sellers or stage managers.
"Things like Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl make a very compelling argument for all-women's productions," she said. "What happens when you have a production that is for women only is that it takes the whole sexual component out of it. It's incredibly empowering."
"Portraits in Faith" will be performed on March 3 at the Scottish Rite Theatre, 4357 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles at 7:30 p.m. For tickets call (310) 278-8995 ext. 405.