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The Koons Moment

Reflections on Abraham and Isaac in Jerusalem
Claire Trevor Theatre UCI, World Premiere, September 29 -October 2, 2010 –

I’ve always hoped to dismiss any claims the artist Jeffrey Koons might make on aesthetic legitimacy, but a recent trip to UC Irvine to see Robert Cohen’s production, Abraham and Isaac in Jerusalem, has illuminated why, in all likelihood, this ambition will continue to elude me. For those who take theater seriously, UC Irvine occupies a special place. Since the 1970s, the program, which Cohen helped found, has been a haven for those who share a more European view of how theatrical expression connects to the ongoing project of “civilization.” Theater, from this perspective, is a uniquely embodied mode of feeling-thought that gives form to ineffable mysteries that would otherwise be inaccessible to us. Based on a medieval play, Cohen’s Abraham and Isaac illustrates this capacity, and manages to tap down into the deeper roots of our culture. Sadly, for me, the evening hinges on what can only be described as a Koons moment.

Are any stories as haunting as the one in which God commands Abraham to take the life of his beloved child Isaac? Harold Bloom uses the term “uncanny” to describe this haunting quality. As children we’re struck by this odd, elliptical intensity, which emanates from stories like Abraham and Isaac to suffuse the entire Old Testament. We notice also that the adults who present these stories to us do so in over-emphatic, rushing cadences, eager to cross terrain they know to be treacherous. And now, all these centuries later, three of history’s great religions battle each other over ownership and control of the site where Abraham raised his knife, and the conflicts regularly turn bloody. This is where Cohen has set his play: Rova Square in Jerusalem.

Robert Cohen

Cohen’s production features a company of gifted actors from the University’s master program, and the Choral work of UCI’s accomplished vocal ensemble, the Men In Blaque. As the huge stage doors swing open this chorus serenades us to our seats. The stage itself is a stark, raised altar. Toward the rear, above a tower of undressed scaffolding that represents Mt Moriah, hang an array of U.N.-membership flags. Further back, fixed to the rear wall, a set of kitschy, stained-glass panels depict familiar bible scenes. The Choral group re-appears, sheep-dogged here and there by a Stage Manager in headset. Various actors troop on and off to make pronouncements about how the evening will unfold. At one point someone apologizes to the audience for the late arrival of the programs…

The meta-theatrical conceit here is that we are watching the dress rehearsal of a production of, as advertised, Abraham and Isaac in Jerusalem. Monitoring the evening for anything that might stray into sacrilege are cultural commissars from the Jewish and the Moslem communities. The comedic effect of their endless, petty haggling aside, this is a world in which every utterance takes on political weight and where nothing can be freely represented. Feverish claims about the nature and meaning of history are choking the spirit, the collective mind spewing out concepts and definitions to justify an appetite for violence that was already there. The actual land of Israel, meanwhile, begins right off-stage, its mysteries intact.

None of this dramaturgical layering is particularly new, but Cohen lays it on with the invisible hand of a practiced director. Deft too is how he and the music director, Joseph Huszti, deploy the chorus, the singers grouping and dissipating repeatedly as the songs slowly gather liturgical weight. The actors play their various roles well, and in a savvy bit of casting that adds an oddly transgressive quality to the love at the heart of the story, Cohen has chosen a young woman (Erika Haaland) to play Isaac. The performance text, once it begins, is based on a medieval mystery play of the kind performed for centuries throughout Christendom. The sincerity of the simple rhyming exchanges stand out in high relief to the suburban Americanese tossed off by the actors in the dress rehearsal segments. The tension between high and low, sacred and profane continues throughout, working to draw us in toward the heart of the story.

It’s no coincidence that, at Cohen’s invitation, the patron saint of meta-theater, the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, spent three years teaching at Irvine in the 1980s. Though Grotowski’s influence on world theater is deep and on-going, it’s hard to speak definitively about his aesthetic. Famously Hermetic, Grotowski worked hard to avoid any codification of principles that might lead toward the enemy terrain of conceptual dogma. But my sense is that, for Grotowski, life itself was a series of theatrical exchanges in which the participants become mesmerized by the appearances they themselves conjure out of thin air. Mislead by distorted projections, we wander away from our true nature. Theater becomes a means of shedding light on psycho-social dysfunctions that are already covertly operating, and the membrane separating stage events from “normal” life grows very thin indeed.

Grotowski notwithstanding, Cohen’s focus isn’t just the terrain Peter Brook calls the “holy theater.” Abraham and Isaac in Jerusalem presents the story as a religious narrative that is mysteriously active on the historical level. Cohen’s meta-theatrical framing builds on the foundation of all our previous encounters with the story of Abraham and his favorite son. And what we already know about the story acts as an unspoken counterpoint to what we encounter as we approach the sacrifice itself. For me, this included the drive South on the I-5 through the corporate wasteland of Orange County, where the toxic fluorescence of convenience stores are all that break the endless monotony of earth-toned corporate parks. In a quieter way than Rova Square, this is also a land choking on self-generated concepts of “the real.” The banality of the consumer cul-de-sac that Western history has delivered us to provides an ironic backdrop for the truly sacred mysteries still active in the mythic story of Abraham and Isaac.

The play of sincerity and irony in Cohen’s production reaches a climax in what I call “the Koons moment.” Isaac is kneeling, ready for the blow. Sword raised, Abraham is about to lay it on. Behind us comes the whirr of an electric engine, and, when we turn, Jehovah himself is rising up on a motorized aluminum “Genie.” Shrouded in mist and snowy of beard, this actor resembles nothing so much as a life-sized, talking version of the kind of saccharine figurine Jeff Koons loves to fabricate. In that moment, deep religious awe and ironic kitsch collide like atomic particles, illuminating the transcendent and immanent axis of a graph on which all religious experience might be plotted.

For me, as I’ve noted before, the writer who sheds the most light on the meaning and history of sacrificial rites is the anthropologist Rene Girard. To Girard, the unique trajectory of Judaism is linked to how the sacred texts evoke the scapegoat mechanism…but only in order to reject it. This rejection of sacrifice begins with the story of Isaac, but continues in stories like the one in which Joseph survives being assaulted by his brothers. This opposition to sacrifice was an important historical milestone, showing how violent impulses could be sublimated into the larger project of “subduing the earth.” Traversing the corporate gauntlet of Irvine toward Cohen’s stage, I thought of the moment in Kubrick’s 2001 where the hominid throws up a bone and the shape of it dissolves to become a futuristic space station; Abraham withholds the blow and history shifts from being a cyclical affair into a progressive advance. A few millennia later we get Irvine…and Rova Square. But while ritualized violence has been foresworn, coercive might retain its seat in the human heart, gathering its toxic energies in the shadows and forming into things like vast armories of nuclear weapons.

As I understand it Girard became a strange kind of Christian late in life, bowing to the scapegoat nailed to the cross while also looking ahead toward a “second coming” in which the species would foreswear violence even in its sublimated forms. The idea here is that the logic of cause and effect will demand that we transcend the distorting forces of greed and aggression in order to survive. This would be to make explicit what the very existence of the scapegoat mechanism implies – separation from the Other is an illusion, an error of the human mind. To one degree or another we are all Abraham, perpetually ready, in the course of our everyday lives, to strike our own hearts, blind to the reality of what we are doing, but haunted too by a secret knowing. That this critique still seems revolutionary only testifies to how far we need to go if we are to outrun the shadow of our own ignorance.


  1. Very keenly and convincingly analyzed, Guy. Good work characterized by deep thinking.


  2. Robert Gould says:

    The next evolution beyond this must be the group, or unity of community. The corporation, (is an individual), and survival of mankind is now a contract to stay incorporated. The corporation of humanity must be looked at as good because its aim is to keep going for thousands of years if possible. The ultimate goal will be preparation for the journey into space that will take ultimate self sacrifice for the survival of the corporate endeavour.

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