LONDON (Jul. 3)
“The prophet Elijah would not sit down for coffee at Starbucks,” Marcus Freed says confidently. “He would obliterate it.”
Solomon “slept with a lot of people and got in trouble for it, Job would be on Prozac if he lived today,” Freed adds, and the judge Deborah “would not be the kind of person you would want on a date.”
He muses for a moment.
“Or maybe you would.”
The British actor and one-time yeshiva student has given a lot of thought to biblical figures, especially Elijah and Solomon — he’s created one-man shows about each.
And after 18 months of working on those two characters, he’s thinking about a much broader project.
“I would love to create a complete biblical series, like Shakespeare’s history plays. The Bible is a massive resource to Jewish writers,” he says. “Shakespeare had Latin and Italian chronicles. This is what we have.”
He stumbled onto the project almost by accident, when he was asked to create a performance for a Jewish education workshop in December 1999.
His only instruction was that the piece be about time.
He knew the famous “a time to be born, a time to die” passage from Ecclesiastes, and decided to write a piece that would end with Solomon writing those words.
“I like Solomon’s teen-age angst — when he’s 60,” Freed says.
The performance got a standing ovation.
“And, accidentally, the career goes in a different direction,” Freed says with a smile and a shrug.
Since then, the performances have quite literally taken him in many directions, from Israel to South Africa, Mexico to Hungary. He’s performed in venues from stone amphitheaters in South America to a five-star kosher hotel overlooking the Mediterranean in the south of France.
Performing plays about biblical characters involves walking something of a tightrope, Freed says.
“I’m remaining true to Torah and midrash,” he says. “I’m not bastardizing it, not trying to twist it, preach, convert or missionize.”
There is an educational aspect to his work, he says, “but that’s a side thing. I want to entertain the audience.”
That’s part of the reason he’s made sure the pieces have strong comic elements.
“Elijah has some ‘Star Wars’ parody,” he says. “There’s a lot of shtick — but it’s all true to what’s going on. You set up the conventions and let it go.”
Freed is part of a tradition of fusing theater and education that includes the Besht Tellers and Joyce Klein, says educator Joel Grishaver, who has worked with the British actor.
At the same time, “Marcus is in no way derivative. He’s completely original,” Grishaver told JTA.
Grishaver expects Freed to go over well when he performs in the United States this month.
“He’s a wonderfully charismatic person, and, of course, he has a British accent, which feeds into all our American fantasies about real actors being British,” Grishaver says.
Freed is also working on adapting Solomon for film, and thinking about which biblical figures he’ll tackle next.
The first king of Israel appeals to him.
“Saul was really screwed up. That’s the great thing about Jewish heroes,” Freed says.
But there’s screwed up, and then there’s screwed up.
“I wanted to do Samson because I have a lot of hair,” Freed says, gesturing to the curly ponytail under his yarmulke and baseball cap.
But Samson was a “psycho with a misogynistic view of relationships,” he says. “I worked on it to see if there was something I could work with, and the answer was no.”
But Freed has not ruled out portraying Samson.
“I might come back to it,” he says. “Different characters speak to you at different times.”