Queen Esther
Queen EstherINN: T.G.

"Esther & the Secrets in the King's Court", an original play, is being featured at a series of performances in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Gush Etzion Theater Company.

Toby Klein Greenwald,  director and one of the co-authors of the featured play, told Arutz Sheva: "it's extremely exciting to me to be bringing back to the stage our first original biblical musical, Esther, after performing it for the first time ten years ago.

"Back then, we began the 'Raise Your Spirits' Theatre to do just what its name says, formed the company and performed at the height of a bloody intifada that took its murderous toll on the Gush Etzion roads as well as other parts of Israel. Now, ironically, our opening night fell in the midst of Operation Pillar of Defense. I was asked by the community center in whose theater we perform to announce instructions for filing down to the lower floor in case of a siren, which would herald a possible rocket attack. "

The religious women's theater company to which Israeli women came in droves, enjoying "Noah, Ride the Wave" and the group's  own production of "Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat", among other shows, has retained the values with which it began. "Now, like then, we open each show with the reciting of a verse from the Psalms, asking God to cure the ill and to protect our soldiers, and we conclude every performance with the singing of the national anthem "Hatikva" and "Ani Ma'amin" ("I believe")," says Greenwald.

This all fits in with the theme of the play, which is, naturally, overcoming evil. In tune with that theme, and in order to rejuvenate the show, it was restaged hilariously in the style of the roaring '20's with flapper's costumes by Ilana Epstien of Efrat.. After all, then, as always, there was evil and there was good, and there were people who strove for justice.

The adaptation and lyrics were written by Sharon Katz of Efrat (who also plays a ferocious Haman), Arlene Chertoff and Greenwald herself and the music was composed by Rivka Epstein Hattin of Alon Shvut.

A large number of children and teens have joined the cast, most notably a "wonderful group of teen dancers", many of whom have been studying since the age of four or five. The all new choreography is by Sara Orenstein, an "emerging and exceptional talent" who is a graduate of the Orot Religious College in Elkana, Samaria's Dance program.

Continues Greenwald, "It is sometimes challenging working with such a large group (65 women and girls who range in age from seven to seventy!) but the cast becomes one family, and there are, in fact, a number of real family groups in the production this time – including daughters and mothers and even grandmothers, aunts, cousins, sisters…"

The interviewer can attest to an uplifing experience, excellent dancing, witty as well as inspiring lyrics and catchy music that enthralled a packed audience of women only, many of them students. In order not to spoil the beautiful ending that talks to the Jews of today as well as those who prayed for the Temple's rebuilding in Esther's time, and so as not to give away some of the more original refrains,  we will just mention the audience laughing roundly at the group of women who cared for Esther, while singing "We are eunuchs – in tunics". After all, we ask, what else rhymes with "eunich?"

The show is in English with both English and Hebrew subtitles projected above the stage, so as to make it available to the hearing-impaired.

Raise Your Spirits continues to host as guests, women and girls who are from families of terror victims or of soldiers who fell in the line of duty and works, together with local social service offices, to host women and girls who cannot afford to pay regular prices for tickets.

" It is wonderful to see girls and women given the opportunity to express themselves on stage in a way that is halakhically (according to Jewish law) unquestionable by the authorities whom they follow", adds Greenwald.

"It seems, however", she adds regretfully, "that most of the midrashot – including the most Zionist among them – are directed by men who have never understood the importance of sending their students to see what it is possible to accomplish in bringing the Bible to life in a way that is religiously acceptable. My wish is that - in addition to Emunah College's Drama and Elkana's Dance majors - they some day understand the importance of showing young Jewish religious women that Yes, they can and should develop their talents in the performing arts. We are extremely grateful that there some who do 'get it'."

The talented lead actresses were Avital Macales as an exquisite Queen Esther, Deena Lawi as a noble Mordechai, and Elana Kronenberg as a wildly comic "wannabe regal" Achashverosh. They have all acted in "Raise Your Spirits" productions in the past. Deena dedicates her role to the memory of Elyse Steinberg, who performed as the first beloved Mordechai, ten years ago.

 In this current production, there are new musical arrangements by Paul Salter, Amit Ben Atar and Mitch Clyman, and new vocal arrangements by Gayle Berman, who also serves as musical director. Eudice Spitz is production manager ("Without whom we could not have accomplished what we did", says Greenwald).

The shows have been licensed abroad, and the company hopes to reach more schools and communities throughout the world – the ultimate "For out of Zion will go forth Torah" – through theater.

For women only. Next performances: January 13 and 17 in Gush Etzion. For tickets: www.raiseyourspirits.org or 052-2278555. Special rates for schools and other groups.

Jan. 24 in the Heichal Tarbut of Kiryat Arba.http://www.kiryat4.org.il/?CategoryID=444

All photo credits to Images Through Time photographer Rebecca Kowalsky of Efrat.