It's now been more than a year and a half since the Amherst College Theater and Dance Department’s last live theater performance. The good news for fans of live theater is that this long intermission will finally come to an end on Thursday night, Oct. 21, with the opening of "Bad Jews," a biting comedy about faith, family and identity written by Joshua Harmon and now being performed as Emma Ratshin ’22E's senior thesis.
Talking to Ratshin about her thesis, it becomes clear that this performance of “Bad Jews” is the result of lifelong involvement in theater that has entailed everything from “Seussical Jr.” to studying Shakespeare at a London conservatory. Ratshin grew up surrounded by theater, but spent a long time experiencing it exclusively as a fan. She recalled, “As far back as I can remember, my parents have always made an effort to take me to theater.” At first, this meant the Seattle Children’s Theater. Later she went to a variety of touring musicals and plays throughout the city. Throughout this period, however, Ratshin’s main focuses were sports and orchestra: “Theater was too time-consuming and expensive for me to really participate in as a kid.”
But in eighth grade, when her middle school put together a production of “Seussical Jr.,” Ratshin remembers her excitement at the opportunity to partake: “This is my time to shine, this is my big break,” she joked upon recalling her thoughts going into what would be a truly formative experience for her. She ended up playing a chorus member — a bird girl — that resembled Big Bird, “an objectively incredibly embarrassing experience,” but it was enough to inspire Ratshin’s love for theater and ultimately pave the way for a long career on the stage that has ultimately culminated in her senior thesis, “Bad Jews,” which will open this Thursday.
In high school, Ratshin ended up accelerating her science classes to get an extra free period for orchestra and drama classes, before eventually dropping orchestra completely to focus on drama. By the time she came to Amherst, Ratshin knew she was planning to major in theater. Since then, she’s acted, directed, written and e-boarded for the Green Room (the college’s student-run theater group). Further, she’s actually run out of classes to take in the Amherst Theater Department (she’s currently taking a theater class at UMass), performed in “Doctor Faustus,” studied Shakespeare for a semester at a London conservatory, all while completing another major in Political Science.
Amherst’s Theater and Dance Department provides a variety of thesis options for students. Some end up writing plays, others direct or act as leads, and a few write papers on theatrical theory. Ratshin ended up settling on the idea of an acting thesis — meaning she would play the lead role in a play directed by a faculty member (in this case Professor Jude Sandy). Choosing a play turned out to be a quite difficult process for Ratshin. “I read like 45 plays in preparation for this,” Ratshin said. “Then I made a shortlist that was actually really long. Then I had a medium list that was shorter. Then I had an actual shortlist. And then I had a top two and I picked ‘Bad Jews.’”
“Bad Jews,” a dark comedy written in 2012 by Josh Harmon about family, identity and religion, stood out to Ratshin for several reasons. The first one she mentions is the show’s ability to intelligently tackle all of its major themes while also remaining “just very very funny.” Ratshin said, “Above all else, I want the audience to have a good time while they’re there, I want them to be like, ‘Oh, I forgot, I love live theater,’” after almost a year and a half without it.
In addition to its ability to balance hilarity and gravity, Ratshin points to the show’s internal structure and characters as reasons she was excited to pick it. The show’s plot is kicked into motion by the death of an elderly Holocaust survivor whose will includes no mention of what to do with his chai necklace, an important family heirloom (“chai” means life in Hebrew). Over the next 80 to 90 minutes, the play follows an escalating argument over the chai necklace between two cousins, Daphna (played by Ratshin) and Liam (played by Eli Quastler ’22E). The whole claustrophobic feud takes place in one Manhattan studio apartment, essentially in real-time.
Increasingly central to the play is the ideological divide between Daphna’s stubbornly devout worldview and Liam’s equally stubborn secularism. Along the way, Liam’s conflict-averse brother Jonah (played by Miles Garcia ’25), and naive non-Jewish girlfriend Melody (played by Caroline Seitz ’22) are dragged into the fray, lending more perspectives to each issue the play covers. Ratshin says that her character’s extreme perspectives have provided an interesting acting challenge: “I don’t align with [her] ideology … but trying to figure out why she thinks the way she does has been really illuminating to me as to why I think the way I do — I want the audience to experience that too.”
With its thought-provoking themes, cutting humor and talented cast, “Bad Jews” is sure to provide a brilliant start to the return of live theater department shows this year. If you don’t already have a reservation, you can make one online now.
Bad Jews opens on Thursday, Oct. 21 at 8 p.m. in the Holden Experimental Theater. Performances will be held at the same time on Oct. 22 and Oct. 23. All members of Amherst’s Covid testing program, as well as students from Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and Smith can attend. A reservation and valid college ID is required for entry.
Additional reporting for this piece contributed by Brooke Hoffman '23E.