People often say, "The Lord works in mysterious ways." In the play The Trial of God, he's forced to answer for them.
Written by Nobel Peace Prize-winning writer Elie Wiesel, the play uses humor and dramatic heft to tackle the complex relationship between God and his people.
Balagula Theatre will close its 2012-13 season with the Kentucky premiere of The Trial of God, opening Sunday at Natasha's Bistro. The production itself presents unique challenges, but Balagula is incorporating additional elements and events to enhance the play's message.
The play, written as a tragic farce in which God is called to trial as a defendant, is based on a true event in Wiesel's life. As a teenager in the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust, he witnessed three rabbis "indicting" God for allowing the massacre of his children in a fictitious trial.
The trial in the play is held in 1649, during the Jewish festival Purim in the fictional Eastern European town of Shamgorod. The innkeeper, Berish (played by Darius Fatemi), is one of the last remaining Jews in the village, and despite the holiday's celebratory mood, he wants people to join him in holding God to task for a series of pogroms, or violent riots against Jews, that have terrorized his people.
Despite the weight of the plot, director Natasha Williams said it contains quite a bit of humor. After all, how do you call the Almighty into court? And, once you do, who do you get to defend him?
"It's the humor of the ridiculous, humor of the absurd, and it's present throughout the play," Williams said. "It's actually a very heavy play that's very dynamic and entertaining."
Because Wiesel's play was written to be read, not performed, it presented Balagula with an interesting challenge in bringing it to the stage. However, as a Jewish woman raised by Holocaust survivors, Williams was more than willing to tackle it.
Then there was the matter of casting. It wasn't a problem of skill level, but that the players — including Fatemi, Lew Bowling, Lauralyn Seamans Hungerford, Ryan Case, Zachary Dearing, Randy Hall, Courtney Waltermire and Russell Mendez — were almost all non-Jewish. Williams said she attempted to help them internalize and understand the unique and direct relationship many Jewish people have with God.
"To say unsacred things, to scream at God, to accuse God, is uncomfortable to them," she said. "It's a very Jewish way of relating to God. God is actually like a family member. Like a parent, you scream at him and then you cuddle."
Other events have been scheduled to coincide with the production. There will be an interfaith discussion on June 13 at Temple Adath Israel. Greg Leffel of the One Horizon Institute will moderate a panel that is to include the Rev. Doug Hahn, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Lexington; Anthony Everatt, pastor of Nia Community Of Faith United Methodist Church in Lexington; and Rabbi Marc Kline of Temple Adath Israel.
On display June 8 to 19 at the Balagula Theatre will be a photography exhibit highlighting the book shadows then light. The book, a collaboration by poet-activist Marco Saavedra and applied anthropologist, activist and artist Steve Pavey, examines the struggles and dehumanization of undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Williams said the book and the exhibit fit in nicely with The Trial of God because Jews and undocumented immigrants have faced similar problems in society.
"Jews are just one of the invisible groups in America. It's a theme of the 'other,'" she said. "Americans really look at undocumented people the same way. In many ways, it's similar, and that's why it's interesting."
Whether religiously or culturally, Williams said she hopes that Balagula's production of The Trial of God and the related events will not only entertain but will inch the audience away from mere tolerance of other people more toward acceptance as a diverse community.
"Hopefully, it would stir the desire to think about those things," she said. "This is the excitement of understanding."
IF YOU GO
'The Trial of God (as it was held on February 25, 1649, in Shamgorod)'
What: Balagula Theatre's production of Elie Wiesel play, published in 1979 but not performed until 2000, about a fictitious trial calling God as the defendant.
When: 8 p.m. June 9-12, 16-19
Where: Natasha's Bistro, 112 Esplanade
Tickets: $18, $12 students. Available at (859) 259-2754 or Beetnik.com.
Learn more: Balagula.com
■ Interfaith discussion panel of The Trial of God. 6:30 p.m. June 13. Temple Adath Israel, 124 N. Ashland Ave., Lexington. Free.
■ Photography exhibit highlighting the book Shadows Then Light. June 8-19. Natasha's Bistro. Author and artist talk, 4 p.m. June 16.