For the past three years, Amy Tobin has created a rock-opera update of the story of Purim, bringing out the hidden libidinal energies in this tale of exile in ancient Persia. Popularly regarded as an opportunity to drink and misbehave, the telling of the story of Esther usually leaves out more challenging elementsand I’m not only talking about sex.
Tobin gets explicit and silly about Esther’s sex lifethere is a comic tension in The Esther Show between her nice-girl hairdo, reminiscent of Baby in Dirty Dancing, and the knee-boots and leather hot pants down below. More provocative, however, is her acknowledgement that desire can be a powerful tool. Esther uses sex to manipulate King Ahasuerus and save the Jews, and Haman and Ahasuerus harbor secret longings for one another.
If Purim is the holiday of subversive reversals, then Tobin’s version of subversion asks other tough questions. In a characteristically insightful move, she points out that when the first queen, Vashti, is exiled for refusing to dance naked before the king’s noblemen, most narrators drop her from the tale; a reading better attuned to feminism would make Vashti a heroine.
Tobin also likes to use the clueless and ineffective king to poke fun at political targetsthe death penalty, the invasion of Iraq, and this year, the Bush administration. In one refrain she sings of a “Story about the stories we tell,” suggesting that Purim is precisely the time to use a critical lens to scrutinize politics. Not to use the story that way would disrespect a tradition which needs innovation in order to surviveor as Johnny Castle says, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.”