Actress, playwright, and composer Ofra Daniel was scouring the public domain for something new and innovative to put on the stage, when her ex-husband suggested she look at the Song of Songs.
Ancient Hebrew poetry may not seem like the best text to pair with a hot beat, but Daniel has found the biblical poems to be far more saucy than sobering, the Shakespeare of its time.
“It’s a collection of love poems between a woman and man who are longing and yearning for one another,” said Daniel. “The way that Jewish priests deal with such eroticism is by saying that it is a love poem between the people of Israel and God, though there is no indication of that [in the text].”
Fascinated by the feminine voice and erotic metaphors the poems contain, Daniel selected a few to perform in Hebrew as a part of a rock concert at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto in 2013.
“Nobody could identify them outside of their religious context,” Daniel says. It was as if the audience was hearing the poems for the first time.
From there, Daniel began to develop the one-woman play that would later become Love Sick, a new musical presented by The Jewish Theater Circle that blends world music and ancient text with a modern-day love story. Directed by Tony winner Christopher Renshaw (The King and I, We Will Rock You) and featuring Daniel herself as the main character, the show will debut at Berkeley’s Osher Studio (Jan. 12-28), followed by a run at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.
“There was a special image in one of the poems of this woman running in the streets, going crazy looking for her lover,” Daniel says. “She says to the women of Jerusalem, ‘If you find him, tell him I am sick with love.’ I took that [line] and put the play together based on that passage.”
There is no clear narrative to Song of Songs, so Daniel created one of her own, weaving narrative around poetry and incorporating the backstory of a married woman who has been getting love poems from a stranger. Some of the poems are composed into original songs, while others are integrated into the narrative text.
Renshaw came on board by way of John Gertz (the producer of Zorro), who insisted that he see Daniel perform.
“I didn’t know what to expect, actually,” said Renshaw. “She performed it for me with a couple of musicians and by the end of the performance I was incredibly moved.”
Prior to the performance, Renshaw was vaguely familiar with the Song of Songs as the forbidden part of the Bible that his mother wouldn’t let him read. Now he finds it fascinating.
“It’s extremely beautiful ancient verse of an open relationship between a man and a woman who talk more freely [about love] than perhaps we do now,” said Renshaw.
Renshaw expanded the show to include choreography and a female ensemble. The music, which was composed by Daniel and Lior Ben-Hur, is performed by world-class musicians, including notable Ali Paris. It is a blend of Arabic, Jewish, and Flamenco, a genre that Renshaw refers to as world fusion.
“The complete differentness of [the show] really attracted me,” said Renshaw. “I was very excited about directing something that has its heart in a woman’s experience. It’s about a woman who discovers all about what is inside of her through poetry and music. A love story with a twist.”
Love Sick, Jan. 12–28, at The Osher Studio, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley. $25-$49; lovesickmusical.com