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Staging Yemen

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The Illusion Theater’s new play includes Yemenite-inspired music by a local composer

By MAX SPARBER

The Illusion Theater is one of the Twin Cities older professional theaters, having started in 1974. This was just nine years after the founding of the Guthrie Theater, a watershed moment in American regional theater, and I have always felt that the influence of the Guthrie is most visible in the theaters closest to it.

There is a seriousness that resulted — not necessarily onstage, as the Twin Cities, and the Illusion, has produced some magnificently daffy plays. But local theaters have a seriousness about theater as a business, and a craft, and a way of communicating with audiences. The Guthrie demonstrated that it was possible to create world-class theater outside of New York, and Twin Cities theaters followed their lead. The Illusion certainly did; they been producing extraordinary work for 43 years.

Caroline Pool stars in the title role of Miranda at the Illusion Theater, with original music by Miriam Gerberg. (Photo: Illusion Theater)

Composer and ethnomusicologist Miriam Gerberg mentions this quality of seriousness in an interview with American Jewish World, mentions how comfortable it is to work with people who have done theater for a long time and can do the work with a maximum of competence and a minimum of fuss.

Gerberg composed the music for Miranda, which opens at the theater on Jan. 28. The play is by James Still, a three-time Pulitzer nominee, and is one of several plays Still has been wrestling with for the past several years, all dealing with a single family and their shared tragedy, a death that occurred in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

In this instance, the story follows the title character, played by the dependably excellent Carolyn Pool. She plays a CIA operative stationed in Yemen, and Gerberg describes the plays as a “sort of a thriller.”

Gerberg may be the ideal person to write music for the show. She describes her early experiences as one of having been pulled in a variety of different directions until she discovered the music of Jews from Yemen. Having been raised a Conservative Jew and being familiar with Ashkenazi liturgical music, she was struck by the familiarity of this Yemenite music. “I loved it,” she says.

“I managed to get a composer fellowship,” she continues, which brought her to Israel, where she studied both Yemenite Jewish music and the music of Moroccan Jewish woman. “There is a rich classical tradition,” she says, “and Jews have contributed for centuries. It’s the same way there are a lot of Jews who have written for Western classical music.

“There’s something about Jews and music,” she says.

Her experiences in Israel led to ongoing studies, including a professional interest in ethnomusicology, the study of the music of different cultures. (Her bio mentions that Gerberg was formerly the director of community outreach at UCLA’s Department of Ethnomusicology.) “It’s wound up being a lifelong pursuit,” she says.

As a composer, her focus has been on music for dramatic performance, including “theater, music, opera,” she says. This led Gerberg to work with the Illusion Theater a few years ago for a Hanuka-themed play the theater was developing.

For this production, Gerberg’s music will act as a soundtrack to the play, playing over the action in a near-cinematic style. The score borrows from Yemenite music, but Gerberg is quick to point out that the music isn’t completely like the Jewish Yemenite music she studied.

“I had to learn about the music for this show,” she says. “It was really nice.”

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Miranda plays Jan. 28-Feb. 18 at the Illusion Theater, 528 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis. For tickets and more information visit illusiontheater.org or call the box office at 612-339-4944.

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