The Playwright Herself was Shocked

By: Dalya Eichler  |  December 20, 2023

By Dalya Eichler

“This is the most confusing show I’ve ever done.” Donna spoke for us all with this line. While I had the privilege to play the part of Athena/Defense Attorney/Annie Jennings, I slowly learned the many layers of what “The Anastasia Trials in the Court of Women” was all about. As much as it was a play of chaos and comedy, it touched upon deeper subjects of identity and to what lengths one would go to save themselves or try and save another. Five women were put on the witness stand to plead their case as to why they were innocent and did not deny Anastasia Romanov of her identity. The audience played the role of the judge and jury, and, therefore, decided the ultimate verdict of guilty or innocent. Going into the first night, I was ready to be voted innocent. The cases were all put together and argued in a manner that made me think that we, the defendants, were in the right. Boy was I wrong. On night one we were astoundingly and overwhelmingly found guilty. I was shocked, I didn’t need to fake a face of disbelief for my role, because I actually was. Night two was no different. Were we going to be guilty all three nights? What was the audience seeing in us that proved we were guilty? 

The afternoon before our closing night, Carolyn Gage, the playwright herself, reached out to SCDS head Gillian Herszage. She was thrilled to hear we were putting on her show here at Stern College. When Gillian informed her that our first two nights had been with a guilty verdict, Carolyn was shocked. She responded, “Wow… That’s unusual. I wrote the show 35 years ago… I remember an audience member at a DC production stood up when a woman voted guilty and screamed ‘NOOOO.’ I was moved by that, because I felt she needed to forgive herself for something. Do you think the age of the audience has something to do with finding them guilty?” Gage continued with another suggestion, “The convention in the staging of the play is that only the women in the audience vote, because this is ‘women’s business.’ How women cope with our victimization in patriarchy and how we are or are not accountable with each other is a conversation that women have among ourselves. It was my intention that the women of the audience would have that conversation with the actors by being judge and jury, and the men would be afforded the rare privilege of witnessing a process to which they are rarely privy. When you allow the men a say, it may skew the results.”

I was ready to see the verdict of our final night. On the stage I tried my hardest to speak to the audience in a way to sway them and prove my clients were innocent. I spoke to pull at their heartstrings and show that if they were in my client’s shoes, they may have done the exact same thing. The verdict was asked for, and the cards were raised. I couldn’t tell what I was looking at. A sea of red and green. Were we guilty or innocent? The Bailiff looked at those cards for a good amount of time and ruled us innocent. Our last night, voted innocent, but were we? The audience seemed split. I approached Shalva Englender who played the Bailiff and asked if we were truly guilty. She told me, “it was fifty-fifty tonight, and I made a judgment call from that. I thought we deserved to be innocent for at least one night.” She could have said either. We were just as guilty as we were innocent that night, and therefore could have been easily guilty for the entire run of the show. Why was this? Why did the vote go this way? I went to seek out the answer for myself and approached the audience and cast members with this question.

I first needed to know what the director of the play thought. The director, Leah Gottfried, reported, “I was surprised by how the verdicts went, I was expecting more innocent votes but the audiences felt pretty strongly that the women were guilty. I think that speaks to a sense of how strong our sense of responsibility is towards others – and perhaps that more of the audience identified with her. It feels heartening in a way that the audience felt for the victim and felt that the women should have protected her. I hope this sense of responsibility for the harm we do to women sticks with them and affects their personal choices to speak up when women are harmed in their own lives.” 

While in the court of women, our showing allowed for men to vote, and although that was not the playwright’s motive for the show, I was curious as to where the men stood, since the conversation was not directed at them. When audience member Noam Ben Simon was asked why he voted guilty on night two, he said, “it never seemed at any point that the women denied doing what they did. It was more a case of purpose, motive, and reasoning.” That answer was satisfactory, but I felt as though people may have felt personally connected to Anastasia and her story, so I continued to ask. 

I approached actor Eliana Diamond, who played Anastasia/Jenny, and she told me, “I’ve been wondering – for those following the story about the lack of women’s groups condemning Hamas’s violence against women – if people have been thinking about that?” That idea interested me immensely. Maybe people are so hung up about a topic like this in their daily lives that it really struck a chord close to home, and they felt that they were obligated to find the women guilty for what they were being accused to have done to Anastasia. Eliana continued, “I had a lot of time to think while sitting under my coat. While my selfish yetzer hara (evil inclination) tempts me to think the verdict relied solely on the quality of my acting – if I did a good job the jury would vote guilty vice versa – I have a lot more faith in the play and the audience. I did notice a large parallel in the play’s messaging and current events.” 

In a meeting with Professor Trapedo, I got some fascinating insights. She said she noticed people in the audience looking around the theater at their fellow audience members whenever they were asked to vote on a motion or pass a verdict during the show. “At Yeshiva University, we are conscious of living our values, and this production invited audiences to do that with red and green cards. I don’t think you could watch Gage’s fictional prosecution of the crime of “denying a woman her identity” without thinking of October 7 and the women who were raped, taken hostage, and brutally murdered.” Professor Trapedo added that the show generated a lot of conversation among the faculty who were able to attend. “One of my colleagues and I agreed that forcing us to condemn or acquit all five women as a collective – in a show focused on the complexity of identity – felt like an injustice itself.” 

It’s hard to remove myself from the experience of working so closely with Carolyn Gage’s deep and thought-provoking piece, but if I could, I wonder what I would have voted. It is even harder to remove myself from the unique experience of being someone so close to a story so similar in my own life as well. On the surface, the five women never denied having stripped Anastasia of her identity, but beyond that, to look at Anastasia, and think that simply being on her side could help her in some way, might be enough to vote the defendants guilty altogether. To look at the women all over the world right now who are being dehumanized and having their identities taken, we are all trying to achieve at least the bare minimum to be there for them, and the most to show the truth of the horrors of the oppressors. 

As a woman, I find myself tirelessly digging out justice from the dirt of the false media and heinous remarks of my generation now. As a woman I am defending the women and men around me, because to watch the ‘kingdom we knew as little girls,’ as stated in the play, crumble the glory of my nation suffer, I’d hold up a red card time and time again to find the oppressors guilty.