September 24, 2018

‘Exagoge’: A theatrical exegesis on the Exodus

At a playreading in a Tarzana temple midway through the Passover holiday, the star of the Exodus story encounters a conundrum. 

Facing Jethro, his future father-in-law, Moses delivers a monologue that is shrouded in ambiguity. “Oh yes, I will speak,” concludes the man who will become one of Judaism’s most celebrated prophets, “but say nothing of substance, for if I proclaimed my heritage, I would remain a stranger, never finding a place to belong. And then, you will know me.”

Actually, the speaker of these lines in Aaron Henne’s adaptation of the ancient play “Exagoge” is Moses No. 2, and there will be at least five more Moseses in this creative riff on the story of Exodus produced by Theatre Dybbuk. Seven Moseses trying to carve out the identity of a single entity — how’s that for an unknowable character?

This monologue, spoken at a late-April script development meeting of a Theatre Dybbuk production, may change by the time the world premiere of “Exagoge” takes place at Temple Israel of Hollywood on June 18. According to Henne — the company’s artistic director and director of the play — a Theatre Dybbuk production is in a constant state of revision. 

The company uses elements of Jewish folklore, ritual and history to inspire theatrical work with universal themes, and Henne’s is by no means the only voice. Joining the seven actors for the “Exagoge” reading at Temple Judea in Tarzana were scholars, designers, composers and choir leaders. Once the reading concluded, the floor was open for discussion. 

“We’re on our fourth or fifth draft, which has changed wildly over the last couple of months based on questions that have come up in the room,” said Henne, who will take home the feedback and produce another draft. “It really is a group effort to try to find out what the heart of this matter is.”

Choir director Kenneth Anderson said the play causes him to reflect on Moses’ position as a leader.

“There’s a theme that I feel is universal, and it’s something that I teach the kids,” said Anderson, whose Leimert Park Choir will provide 12 onstage singers. “Ultimately, there’s the idea that all old things melt away no matter what the struggle was, and new struggles are born. I feel that way every time I think about anything, even the story of Moses: the whole idea of what it means to be a leader who stays too long.”

The inspiration for this version of “Exagoge” is a series of fragmented verses of what is believed to be the first Jewish-themed play in existence. Likely written in Alexandria in the second century BCE by Ezekiel the Poet, “Exagoge” is an account of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt told in the form of a Greek tragedy. Henne had been interested in Hellenistic Judaism as the basis for a Theatre Dybbuk production, and conducted research in order to find a suitable dramatic work to adapt. 

After Henne discovered “Exagoge,” he commissioned a new translation of the existing fragments. Because barely one-fifth of the original play remains, Henne believes it is unlikely that the work has been performed on stage in thousands of years. “Exagoge” will have a total of four performances this summer: two at Temple Israel (June 18-19), one at Grand Park (July 23) and one at the Fowler Museum at UCLA (Aug. 6). 

As a Theatre Dybbuk production, however, the work won’t feel ancient. Henne’s adaptation builds on the 269 surviving lines, adding to and reconsidering the story in order to bring in contemporary issues. “Exagoge” will have references to present-day Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, Syria, and to oppression and slave populations throughout world history. Masks will play a substantial part in the proceedings, and the play will feature the Harmony Project Leimert Park Choir singing original music composed by TV and film composer Michael Skloff, who has worked extensively with the choir. 

Although past Dybbuk productions such as “Tefillah” and “Kippur” have been staged exclusively in sacred spaces, half of the “Exagoge” performances will be at nonreligious venues. All of the performances will be outdoors, as would have been the case in ancient Greece. 

“It was decided fairly early on that this was not going to be running for four weeks in a single setting,” Henne said. “With the [play’s] cultural conversation … about integration, differentiation, assimilation and all those questions, we want this to be an outdoor event in different areas to try to engage the whole city in a kind of conversation.”

Theatre Dybbuk typically goes 16 months between productions, and Henne originally envisioned staging “Exagoge” to coincide with Passover. That timetable was delayed when the company received a commission to create “Assemble,” a theatrical dance piece for the Center for Jewish Culture and the Leichtag Foundation’s Sukkot Harvest Festival in Encinitas. When the company returned to “Exagoge,” some cast members were no longer available. 

Both veteran company members and first-timers say that working on a Theatre Dybbuk piece is a unique experience. 

“I haven’t been a part of a process this inclusive in terms of writing a very text-heavy play,” actor Jonathan CK Williams said. “Being in rehearsals, we get very much into the ‘How do we tell this physically in the space?’ ‘How do we communicate that?’ Aaron [Henne] is also very inclusive in asking for our opinions and also letting us fly and try weird things.”

“It’s actually very gracious of the playwright,” added Jenny Gillett, who plays Moses No. 1. “It’s his play, but I appreciate that we get to be a part of shaping it.”

“Exagoge” runs June 18-19 at Temple Israel of Hollywood, July 23 at Grand Park/The Music Center and Aug. 6 at the Fowler Museum on the UCLA campus. For more information, visit