Shanara Gabrielle Elevates 'Hannah Senesh' at New Jewish Theatre

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

In a year where St. Louis theater has given us at least two one-person shows featuring extraordinary acting performances, here comes Shanara Gabrielle as “Hannah Senesh” at the New Jewish Theatre, playing both roles in the two-character play with such style, grace and skill that her performance is as inspirational as the character she portrays.

Hannah Senesh at New Jewish Theatre Photo by John Lamb

Shanara Gabriel as Hannah Senesh at New Jewish Theatre
Photo by John Lamb

The play is the true story of how, as a young woman, Senesh parachuted into Yugoslavia to rescue Jews destined for Auschwitz, only to be immediately captured, imprisoned, tortured, and after refusing to give up any military information, executed by firing squad, leaving behind a legacy of poetry that is known throughout the world.

However, the character of Senesh, as penned by playwright David Schechter, seems less heroic than is her due. The plot was a smooth ascension up the ladder from common girl to heroine, but for drama, the playwright has to remove some of the rungs. Inspiration comes when the character ascends the ladder in spite of missing rungs. Did Senesh never know doubt or fear? There are some emotional moments at the end, which Gabrielle plays to perfection, but there are too few obstacles. Help an actress out. Give her something to fight against. We know Hannah Senesh is a hero because the facts of her life attest to it, but we want to be shown her heroism.

Hannah Senesh at New Jewish Theatre Photo by John Lamb

Hannah Senesh at New Jewish Theatre
Photo by John Lamb

That makes Gabrielle’s performance all the more impressive. She opens the play as Catherine, Hannah’s mother—heavy Slavic accent and heavier soul—and appears moments later as the young, exuberant and bright-eyed Senesh, then closes the play again as her own mother. The transformation is arresting and shows just how deep Gabrielle’s acting well is dug. She is the very definition of “versatile actress,” as illustrated by just some of her recent roles, which include playing both a witch and male soldier in The Rep’s “Macbeth,” a pregnant woman in “Clybourne Park,” a courtesan in “Comedy of Errors” and too many more to mention, and she sings too. In each of her roles, as in “Hannah Senesh,” she completely inhabits the role. Watch her eyes. There’s a life in there.

Hannah Senesh at New Jewish Theatre Photo by John Lamb

Hannah Senesh at New Jewish Theatre
Photo by John Lamb

Director Kat Singleton keeps the play well-paced and pulls a top-notch performance from Gabrielle, though one wonders how the director might have alleviated the script’s lack of tension. The set by Peter and Margery Spack is creative—simple on one hand but resembling an art installation on the other. A large video screen used for projections hangs at the rear of the stage, swaths of cloth hanging from the ceiling are reminiscent of parachutes, and a small ramp and weedy area offers Singleton plenty of space to utilize in staging, and she does to nice effect. All around, the technical crew has done a nice job here. It should be noted that there is actually a second actor, Jimmy Betts, who does a fine job as a German guard in a brief walk-on.

“Hannah Senesh” is a story worth telling. In Israel she’s a national hero, but much less well-known in the U.S., and that in itself is reason enough to see this play. It’s a smooth evening of theater and pretty to look at. But it is Gabrielle’s outstanding performance that lifts the play from simple to sublime.

“Hannah Senesh” continues through Dec. 22 in the Wool Studio Theatre, 2 Millstone Campus Drive. For tickets or information visit the New Jewish Theatre website or call (313) 442-3283.

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