David Feldshuh’s new play, “Dancing with Giants,” is a family affair. It stars his sister, award-winning actor Tovah Feldshuh, features cartoons projected on the set by his son Zach, and the song “The Song of the Low Blow Champion” written by his son Noah, a founding member of the band X Ambassadors.
But the choice of Tovah was made as much for her acting skills as her family connection, says Feldshuh: The winner of multiple Drama Desk Awards, she has been nominated for four Tony Awards and two Emmy Awards. (She was a distinguished guest artist at Cornell in 1999, performing with Cornell students in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.”)
In “Dancing with Giants,” Tovah plays the male lead of Yussel the Muscle, a Runyanesque character. “My sister is able to project the energy of an imp of a man who believes he can do anything, and a man determined to dance with giants to influence history,” says Feldshuh. With music and dancing, the show “is funny, until it isn’t.”
David Feldshuh says a good actor can create many types of characters. “A man can play a woman, or a woman can play a man. An accomplished actor will search to find how to walk, how to talk, how to create a range of small behaviors that can reveal age, personality or gender,” says Feldshuh, professor of performing and media arts (PMA) in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Though fiction, “Dancing with Giants” is based on real events and people. The play recounts the friendship of three very different men – New York wheeler-dealer boxing manager Joe “Yussel the Muscle” Jacobs, German boxing champion Max Schmeling and American boxing great Joe Louis – in the years leading up to World War II. Schmeling beat Louis in a 1936 match and became a German icon and Hitler favorite. Needing an American promoter, Schmeling hired Jacobs, a Jew. But their friendship is threatened by Joseph Goebbels’ ruthless manipulation of the truth as Hitler’s minister of propaganda and enlightenment. In the three years since Feldshuh’s first draft of the play, the figure of Goebbels has become more integral to the story and the play more political. “Goebbels believed that the truth is manufactured and that he could get anyone to believe anything,” says Feldshuh, including that a square is in fact a circle, as Goebbels famously said. “He was the first modern propagandist, constructing “the truth” to fit his political ambition. His character asks: What is the truth? What are facts? What does it mean to lie?
For Feldshuh, “Dancing with Giants” is a tribute to the spirit, life and times of his parents and immigrant grandparents. “Yussel is a figure whose sense of humor, physical energy, willingness to try anything and go for it, and ability to bounce back reflect the approach to life of people whose struggle was fueled by a determination to survive the Depression and make a life in a remarkable country, America,” he says.
“Dancing with Giants” will have its world premiere Feb. 8-24 at the Illusion Theater in Minneapolis, where in 2015 Feldshuh spent two weeks workshopping the play with professional actors, just as he had done with his Pulitzer Prize-nominated play, “Miss Evers’ Boys.”
The “Dancing with Giants” script is up to draft 30, getting tighter and more focused, says Feldshuh, in part thanks to his colleagues in PMA and friends at Cornell who offered feedback and suggestions. His wife and daughter, as well as extended family, provided important support as well. “They were drafted to read the script out loud at Thanksgiving dinner, two years in a row. That’s family loyalty,” says Feldshuh with a smile.
Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.