Under the Ancient Love Letters
A Review of Love Sick

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The set of the new musical Love Sick is dominated by a leafless tree, surrounded in scaffolding and dripping with letters hung with string. This is a special kind of wishing tree, as the letters contain wishes for—yearnings for—love, a love thousands of years old. These love letters are drawn from the Song of Songs, the Jewish tradition that has come to represent the loving relationship between God and Israel. Without an allegorical overlay, the Songs put the sensual, desperate desire between two lovers in dialogue with each other and exhibit the strongest feminine voice in the Bible. Much like the Song of Songs, Ofra Daniel’s Love Sick presents a strong, female voice and perspective on love.

Daniel’s musical, in which she also stars, succeeds in its portrayal of Tirzah, a complicated, believable woman in love. Her acting proves even more impressive when one takes into account the fact that she’s telling an ancient tale inspired by ancient texts. Her acting is heightened by the beautifully staged depictions of her coming into her sexuality, her natural, raw body confined by a loveless marriage bed and traditional wedding dance circles. Now an old meshuga prattling off love poems in the streets of Tel Aviv, Tirzah shares the story of her past, an elaboration upon the Song of Songs in which a mad woman runs naked through Jerusalem, searching for her lover. Tirzah removes her ragged coat and scarves to reveal the gown of a young bride, whose shawl later becomes the chuppah under which she is wed to the ever-smelly fish man. With its minimal set and fuzzy boundaries between time and space, fluid transitions weave Tirzah’s musings on her discovery of love within the societal constraints of Old Jerusalem together seamlessly. The lighting design adds to this softness, appropriately shading the mood of each scene with sensual pinks and reds, warm oranges, and aching blues.

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To call the subdivisions of Love Sick scenes is almost a misnomer. Rather than the traditional plot-driven narrative of most theater, almost all of Love Sick unfolds from the perspective of Tirzah’s retelling and reliving. It feels more like a staged recreation of oral storytelling traditions than a musical. Despite the lack of dialogue and action, the production blends its storytelling elements in such a way that keeps that audience engaged. The music, above all, pulls the emotions of Love Sick together into a coherent tragedy. Each and every song pulses with energy and feeling, though the songs range from heartbreaking ballads to lively salsa dances. They blend English and Hebrew with a variety of instruments, from guitar and drums to woodwinds and the Middle Eastern quanun. These artfully crafted songs elicit shivers one moment and clapping the next. They are, without exception, a joy. Each song is placed perfectly within the text so that it emerges naturally, avoiding the suddenly-bursting-out-in-song awkwardness that so few musicals overcome.

As the musicians and actors perform, they beam an energetic, communal light—each is equally important in creating this storytelling tradition, and equally talented. The women of Jerusalem flow from gossips to friends to mothers to enemies exceptionally well, pouring their characters into set transitions that punch the speaking and singing with physicality. When Tirzah becomes truly crazy over love, the women push against her in a line, holding the crates that make up the seating and set pieces through the rest of the show. They are a force.

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The production and performance elements of Love Sick are unique, cohesive, and powerful, but the story they tell leaves something to be desired. The show examines the difference between real love and the fervor of fantasy through a surprising twist, but this revelation and its denouement are rushed and unresolved. By the end, Tirzah’s choices and emotions become unsympathetic and confusing. The result seems to imply that the women of Jerusalem, in all their judgment and warnings about female waywardness and sensuality, were right about the dangers of behaving and dreaming beyond their traditions. Thus the ending of Tirzah’s story is unsatisfying. She repeats the mantra from the Song of Songs to “never wake and arouse love until it’s time.”. Perhaps the time that Tirzah aroused her love was simply not right. Perhaps it was not the right kind of love. Regardless, there exists a disconnect between the Tirzah at the end of her backstory, the mad Tirzah who runs from Jerusalem searching for her lover, and the old Tirzah wandering the streets of Tel Aviv.

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Despite its unsatisfying and rushed conclusion, Love Sick brings something lush and new to the musical theater world. Its feminine voice, weaving of ancient and modern texts and times, and intoxicating music fulfill the audience in a soulful way that Tirzah’s love cannot fulfill her. Though Tirzah sleeps in sadness under the fallen leaves of her love poems, the audience brushes across these letters as they exit the theater, taking with them a bit of their ancient magic and passion.

Images courtesy of Cheshiredave Creative

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