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Recent UCLA student-directed play retells religious stories through queer lens

A modern retelling of biblical narratives through a queer lens, “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told” begs to question old beliefs. This comedic story of love and representation hit the stage May 29 to June 1. (Courtesy of Yuval Zehavi)

By Avery Poznanski

June 4, 2024 11:36 a.m.

Rainbows, rabbits and rabbis abounded in the UCLA Department of Theater’s latest production.

“The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told,” written by Paul Rudnick, ran from May 29 to June 1 in The Little Theater. Directed by third-year MFA theater student Yuval Zehavi, the play retells the biblical creation story through a flamboyantly queer lens. Following the world’s first couples, Adam and Steve and Jane and Mabel, from the beginning of time to 1990s Manhattan, the play explores the intersectionality of religion, queer identity and gender roles. Produced as Zehavi’s MFA thesis, “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told” is a laugh-out-loud comedy that engages with old and modern issues alike within the queer community, Zehavi said.

“I was coming to think of what I want to direct, with all the anti-trans and anti-drag laws across the country and all over the world,” Zehavi said. “There’s something about this language and about how it talks, how it brings the queerness of an alternative to religion, religious practices and religious stories. … I felt it’s very, very relevant to our times now.”

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For Zehavi, the relationship between religion and queerness is a personal one – he said he recalls growing up in Israel, where he learned biblical stories as part of a secular education and later navigated his emerging queerness in a socially religious environment. When first reading the play’s script, he was able to intuitively recognize many of the biblical references but began to question how these stories are used to uphold heteronormative and colonialist systems, Zehavi said. As a queer Jewish artist now living in America, Zehavi said he has come to reevaluate how his different identities inform each other.

“The past few years, having to acknowledge my Jewish identity not as a given thing, but as a chosen thing made me realize that it’s a big part of my identity but not necessarily has to be this or this,” Zehavi said. “I’m not religious, and I’m not going by every Jewish law, but I know that the traditions of being Jewish and the stories are something that are a part of me and eventually connect to my queer identity.”

“The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told” makes colorful and strategic use of theatricality and performativity to illustrate how queer people rely on storytelling as a belief system, Zehavi said. It was important for Zehavi to find the balance between the joy and conflict in the play, he said, reflecting on how campy or glamorized representations of queerness are sometimes celebrated in mainstream culture but can lose sight of the ongoing struggle for liberation.

Third-year theater major Jeannine Vargas, who played the roles of a stage crew member, a rabbit and a heterosexual mom, said she initially auditioned for the show as a way to connect with friends who were also auditioning. Through the rehearsal process, Vargas said the self-assurance of her queer cast members made her feel affirmed in her continuing journey of authenticity.

“I’ve always had an interesting relationship between religion and queerness, and I think I’m still navigating that,” Vargas said. “But I think I have a lot more confidence in where my identity lies between the two and how they connect.”

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Third-year theater major Maya Tanaka, who plays a misguided but well-intentioned Mormon, said this production was her first time working with a queer script. In the rehearsal space, Tanaka said working with other queer actors and an intimacy coordinator for the first time made her feel safe and seen in a new way. In taking the play from the rehearsal room to the stage, Tanaka said she had hoped the lighthearted tone of the play would encourage people to laugh while turning inwards to question their own beliefs.

“Questioning why you believe rather than what you believe is a really important thing,” Tanaka said. “I think this play is a really interesting way to think about how religion plays a big part in life and how it does interfere with sexuality and sometimes makes people not want to share who they are.”

Zehavi said he was surprised to learn after reading the script that “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told,” written in 1998, was considered a controversial play. In anticipating the audience’s response, he said any moral criticism of the play makes it that much more important to be told. Ultimately, Zehavi said queer people offer the world a model of questioning everything around and within them as a constructive practice.

“As queer artists, we should want people to disagree with us, we should want our work to raise questions,” Zehavi said. “If people leave and say ‘Hmm, I don’t know,’ it’s probably because you did something … because you touched something that is important enough for people to question.”

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Avery Poznanski
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