November 7, 2008

Judith set to slay audiences—in Slavonic

Desperate to liberate her people from the wrath of a powerful general, a beautiful widow seduces her greatest enemy in a daring maneuver that could ultimately prove to be ruinous. Sounds like the plot of the latest bestselling romance novel, right? Well, if you’re looking forward to some steamy scenes, you might be a bit disappointed. This is not the latest piece of smut; it’s the biblical story of Judith, a heroine who takes matters into her own hands to free her people from a despotic invader. Performing in its American debut at Hyde Park Union Church this Friday, Judith: A Biblical Story from Renaissance Croatia will be devoid of the passionate embraces and sexual innuendo that mark the typical romance novel. Instead it will feature archaic chants and an impressive vocalist. Though it may not raise your temperature, Judith has all the makings of a thoroughly entertaining performance.

Judith is a widow from Bethulia, a town under siege by the Assyrian general Holofernes. In a courageous move to save her townsmen, Judith becomes a spy and successfully infiltrates Holofernes’s camp. Once there, she earns his trust. Lead vocalist of the performance Katarina Livljanic elaborates: “Judith decides to seduce him. While he is sleeping, she cuts off his head.” Without its leader, the Assyrian army is easily defeated, and her town is liberated.

In 1501, Marko Marulic reworked the biblical tale into poetry. He translated the story of Judith from Latin to his native Croatian, a move that widely publicized the story. Livljanic emphasized this popularity, saying, “Judith is a long, long epic narrative poem that is itself very, very famous. This story is very exploited in art and is the founding text for Croatian literature during the Renaissance period.” Judith has captivated readers for ages since, and has now captivated theatergoers.

Judith: A Biblical Story from Renaissance Croatia draws upon ancient Glagolitic chants that are described by PlaybillArts writer Matthew Westphal as “hypnotic, meditative, [and] by turns serenely simple and exotically strange.” The character Judith is brought to life by the charismatic and talented Livljanic. Accompanying her is the vocal ensemble Dialogos, as well as flutes, fiddles, and traditional war pipes.

Lilvljanic performs the poem in its original language, which may seem very daunting to potential viewers. Livljanic made assurances, however, that “English subtitles will accompany each song.” The combination of unfamiliar chants and lively music, led by instrumentalists Norbert Rodenkirchen and Albrecht Maurer, promises to be an engrossing experience. The German newspaper Kölnische Rundschau reports that “the charismatic singer and the instrumentalists…together created an enraptured, dense atmosphere, from which the listener could only slowly emerge at the end.”

The performance proved to be so captivating that it won critical acclaim at the 53rd annual Split Festival in Croatia in 2007. Livljanic found the festival especially rewarding because of its location. “Split was a wonderful place to perform because it was actually the hometown of the poem’s author Marko Marulic,” Livljanic said. “The festival combines opera, theater, and music into an amazing experience.”

The performance gained notoriety for its inclusion of characters’ inner thought processes. This technique makes some characters instantly relatable and endears the audience to the hero of the story. This intriguing method of storytelling creates an intimate relationship between the characters and the audience.

Just don’t expect the…well, intimacies, commonly seen in the run-of-the-mill romances. Despite the initial cheap paperback premise, the ending is quite different from the sappy clichés of a Harlequin novel. The exotic music and unique retelling make Judith: A Biblical Story from Renaissance Croatia a singular theatrical experience.