Play, movie depict challenges of being female in a male-dominated society

Waad Mohammed as a Saudi girl in search of a bicycle in Wadjda
Waad Mohammed as a Saudi girl in search of a bicycle in Wadjda

By Richard Ades

Patriarchy is in the crosshairs at two Bexley area venues. A groundbreaking Saudi Arabian film is launching a sneak attack at the Drexel Theatre while, a few blocks to the south, a familiar tale is walking the boards at the Jewish Community Center.

The play is Yentl, best known as the source material of a 1983 movie musical starring Barbra Streisand. Written by Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer, the stage version differs significantly from the Streisand vehicle but still focuses on a young Jewish Pole who changes her identity in order to study scripture.

Yentl (Adelaide Feibel) learns the joys of scholarship thanks to her rabbi-father (Frederick M. Luper), who teaches her the Torah in secret because such knowledge is meant only for boys. After his death, she disguises herself as a young man named Anshel and joins a yeshiva to continue her studies.

From this point, the play largely sets aside the underlying issue of gender inequality and focuses on gender identity. Yentl/Anshel becomes study partners with Avigdor (Daniel Shtivelberg) and stumbles into a relationship with his ex-fiancée, Hadass (Rachel Gaunce). This sets up complicated questions whose answers are hard to sort out in the current Gallery Players production.

One problem is that talented high-schooler Feibel seems overwhelmed by the challenging title role. Not only is she onstage almost constantly, but she has to play a girl who masquerades as a boy and is faced with conflicting and confusing emotions. Though Feibel gives a gutsy performance, it’s hard to read her character’s true feelings, as the portrayal mainly comes off as angry and defensive.

In general, director Steve Black’s production suffers from a lack of coherence. There are good performances in both large and small roles—Shtivelberg and Gaunce are both admirable—but there are also scenes in which actors stumble over lines or chew the scenery.

At the performance I attended, the audience unwittingly added to the problem by applauding every scene, no matter how short. Though the applause was meant to be supportive, it added to the feeling that the play was a collection of disparate parts rather than a coherent whole.

Meanwhile, at the Drexel, an unusual film is taking aim at the patriarchal elements of another religion. Set in Saudi Arabia, where a conservative interpretation of Islam prevents women from even obtaining driver’s licenses, Wadjda focuses on another girl who masquerades as someone she’s not.

Wadjda (an irresistible Waad Mohammed) is easy to spot in her all-girl school—she’s the one wearing worn sneakers under her ankle-length uniform. Though she would be a typical preteen in most parts of the world, Wadjda’s love of pop music and her tomboyish adventures with boy pal Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) mark her as a rebel in the school’s repressive atmosphere.

Then two things happen that change her life: (1) She spots a beautiful bicycle that she decides she must have, even though cycling is considered hazardous to a girl’s virtue. And (2) the school announces a Quran competition whose prize money is almost identical to the bike’s cost. The enterprising girl immediately undertakes a study of Islam’s holy book, fooling the school’s staff into thinking she’s suddenly found religion.

Directed by Haifaa Al Mansour, the film also focuses on Wadjda’s mother (Reem Abdullah), a woman with her own set of problems. She attempts to live by her society’s strict rules, which mean covering up from head to toe and hiring a foreign-born driver when she wants to venture outside the home. But she’s increasingly feeling the sting of patriarchy, particularly because her loving but largely absent husband (Sultan Al Asaaf) is planning to take a second wife who can give him the son he needs to carry on his bloodline.

The mother’s emotional conflicts are shown in subtle ways, as in the primping she engages in before putting on a garment that hides her handiwork from the public. Similarly, Wadjda’s feelings toward her situation—her father’s imminent remarriage and the increasing strictures she’s expected to follow—must be gleaned from her expressive eyes.

Wadjda carries two distinctions: It’s the first full-length film made entirely in Saudi Arabia, and it’s the first feature directed by a Saudi woman. But its most important distinction is the disarming and subtly powerful way in which it depicts the ordeal of growing up female in a patriarchal society.

Gallery Players (in conjunction with Fort Hayes Black Box Theatre Company) will present Yentl through Nov. 3 at the Jewish Community Center, 1125 College Ave. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20 ($15 JCC members), $18 seniors ($13 JCC members), $10 students and children. 614-231-2731 or

Wadjda will be screened through Oct. 31 at the Drexel Theatre, 2254 E. Main St. Show times: 4:30, 7:30 and 9:45 p.m., plus 11 a.m. and 1:45 p.m. Wednesday. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes. Tickets: $5-$9. Rating: 5 stars (out of 5).

Making patriarchy palatable

Amanda Cawthorne as Kate and Tim Browning as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew (photo by Matt Hermes)
Amanda Cawthorne as Kate and Tim Browning as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew (photo by Matt Hermes)

By Richard Ades

There are two Shakespeare plays that are hard sells because they’re based on outmoded mores. Of these, the more difficult is The Merchant of Venice, not so much because it has a Jewish villain but because its punishment for his villainy is to force him to convert to Christianity.

If Shakespeare were alive today, I’d sure he’d long since have had an Exodus International-style change of heart and issued an apology.

The other tough sell is The Taming of the Shrew, but after seeing the play twice in the past year, I suspect it may be due for a partial reprieve. The comedy is as patriarchal and sexist as ever, but if it’s done with heart and sensitivity, viewers might be able to overlook its dated viewpoint.

Admittedly, I first came to this conclusion after seeing it performed at London’s Globe Theatre, where I joined the other “groundlings” standing at the foot of the stage. Not only was the production a witty delight, garnering the biggest laughs of any Shakespearean outing I’d ever seen, but the theater’s 16th-century design might have made it easier to dip one’s mental toes into the mindset of the Bard’s era.

Still, you don’t have to go to the Globe to appreciate Shrew. If it’s been reprieved, the probable reason is simply that women’s place in the world has changed.

When a character declares that wives owe their husbands obedience because the men are the ones who go out and earn a living, we know she’s talking about a time that’s safely in the past. For most of us living in 21st-century America, the play’s sexism is too anachronistic to be threatening.

As I said, the comedy still must be performed with heart and sensitivity in order to work. New Players Theater’s current production, directed by Jocelyn Wiebe, is not perfect. But it does get the all-important relationship between Katherina (the “shrew”) and Petruchio (her would-be “tamer”) exactly right.

The situation: Baptista (Scott Willis), a rich resident of Padua, Italy, has two daughters of marriageable age. The gentle Bianca (Erin Mellon) has several suitors, but Baptista insists that her older sister, Kate (Amanda Cawthorne), must be married first. Trouble is, Kate’s mercurial temper scares off all prospective husbands.

Enter Petruchio (Tim Browning), who’s in search of a rich wife and insists that he can mold Kate into a devoted spouse. With help from his long-suffering servant, Grumio (Todd Covert), he sets out to do just that by adopting a plan of action that convinces her and everyone else that he’s outlandishly eccentric and possibly insane.

What makes all this palatable is that Browning portrays Petruchio as manipulative but never disrespectful toward Kate, while Cawthorne portrays Kate as ill-tempered but never undignified. Besides, we can’t help suspecting that these two fiery spirits are well-suited to each other.

A subplot involving Bianca’s suitors is marked by the typical Shakespearean disguises. Both Lucentio (Austin Andres) and Hortensio (Matthew Moore) pretend to be tutors in order to gain alone time with her (a goal that will resonate with fans of The Bachelorette), while Lucentio’s servant Tranio (Clifton Holznagel) masquerades as his master. The ruses are good for a few laughs, but the funniest suitor of all, thanks to Miles Drake’s crusty portrayal, is the doddering Gremio.

Mellon’s Bianca seems a tad too shallow to justify all the attention she receives, but the acting in the subplot is mostly on-target. Unfortunately, this part of the play is weakened by hackneyed bits of slapstick accompanied by overbearing sound effects (“Boing!”) and musical flourishes (“Whah, whah, whah, whah”). To be sure, slapstick has a place in Shakespeare, but it should serve the plot rather than acting as an over-the-top distraction.

Director Wiebe seems to set the tale somewhere in the mid-20th century, judging from the recorded musical accompaniment and Natalie Cagle’s costume designs. Again, the music is sometimes overbearing, but the costumes are distinctive and attractive. Alas, none is as daring as the ass-less outfit Petruchio wore to his wedding at the Globe, but that approach probably would have gotten the troupe thrown out of Hilliard.

And that would have been a shame. Despite its outdated attitudes, The Taming of the Shrew remains a clever and entertaining take on the war between the sexes.

New Players Theater will present The Taming of the Shrew through July 21 at the Mill Run Amphitheater (behind the Church at Mill Run), 3500 Mill Run Drive, Hilliard. Show times are 8 p.m. June 20-23 and 30, and July 6-7, 11-12 and 19-21. (Henry IV, Part One will be presented at 8 p.m. June 27-29, July 5, 13-14, 18 and 25-28.) Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets: Pay what you will. “Premium reserved seats” are available with paid reservations; otherwise, bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-874-6783 or