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A CurtainUp Review
The Golem
David Lohrey
I am a secret not of darkness, but of light.
---The Golem
The Golem
Robert Prosky and Joseph McKenna (the Goldem)
. The Golem by H. Leivick was written 1921 in the shadow of WWI and in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. It retells the legend of the medieval rabbi in Prague who builds a clay monster to defend the Jewish ghetto from gentiles with paranoid fantasies of ritual murder. The scapegoating and lunatic anti-Semitism that would dominate this period gave rise to numerous ghoulish incarnations well known to silent film fanciers. Key to an understanding of the Golem, as distinct from other such creations as, say, Frankenstein, is that a man of God in defiance of Holy law made this monster. The play's provocative theme, then, raises the question of the tension between transgression and survival. How far can one go to save oneself and one's people while remaining fully human in the eyes of God?

Whatever shortcoming this production may have, the story itself remains a classic work of the Yiddish stage and is well worth seeing. David Fishelson's new adaptation, translated by Joseph C. Landis claims to be a version "significantly trimmed and rewritten". Evidently, the adaptor found it necessary to overhaul the structure, while cutting certain scenes altogether. Whether these efforts improve on the original or not cannot be decided here. What can be said is that the work presented is decidedly unsatisfactory.

Part of the problem may be the adaptation, but much of it may have to do with trying to produce a classic of the Yiddish stage before a largely secular audience in a realistic mode. This straight- forward telling of the mystical tale lacks the melodramatic grandeur one associates with the Yiddish theatre of the first half of this century. The production lacks that larger-than-life quality that belonged to the Yiddish theatre. Here the performers seem pale and tired. As a result, the play's subject matter and the production clash. The set (magnificently designed by Beowulf Boritt) resembles some strange blackened cave, but the people in it seem lackadaisical. The musical interludes (by Daniel Levy) are dynamic, but the acting, humdrum.

Even the leads clash in their respective styles. Robert Prosky the very able actor last seen on Broadway in Glengarry Glen Ross and A Walk in the Woods, plays the Maharal, the creator of the Golem, as a befuddled laboratory assistant. He seems to be out of touch, strangely confused and unable to grasp what is happening around him. David Little, on the other hand, who plays Thaddeus, the Christian priest, has a magnificent growl in his voice, thus creating a frightening adversary both to the Rabbi and to the Jewish community as a whole. Finally, Joseph McKenna as the Golem presents a tortured soul, as though he were the only one on the stage who understands the consequence of his actions. It is a powerful performance, and at the same time a disturbing one.

These clashing acting styles result in a production that offers only intermittent insight into the play's final meaning. There is not culminating significance to the proceedings, as though the play were divided into segments of alternating and possibly even conflicting meaning. The play as a whole has the right look, but the feel of it is at once jarring and boring. This doesn't change the fact that The Manhattan Ensemble Theatre is to be commended for bringing a work of this kind to the stage. As with this season's production of The Castle, the theater has proven that productions of classic works of literature force the audience to reexamine its definition of what it means to be entertained.

Editor's Note: For a quite different take on The Golem readers might want to check out our review of Vit Horejs' wonderful puppet play The Golem, wich we first saw at LeMama and which the company recently revived in another off-Broadway venue-- which gives hope that they might revive it again.

Written by H. Leivick.
Adapted by David Fishelson.
Director: Lawrence Sacharow.

Cast: Robert Prosky, Michael Milligan, Joseph McKenna, David Little, Brandon Demery, Lynn Cohen, Rosemary Garrison, Ben hammer, Jeff Ware, Ian Pfister, Steven Rosen, David Heuvelman, Stuart Rudin.
Scenic Design: Beowulf Boritt.
Costume Design: Tracy Dorman.
Lighting Design: Michael Chybowski.
Original Music and Co-Sound Design: Daniel Levy.
Co-Sound Design: Timothy J. Anderson.
Running Time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission
Manhattan Ensemble Theater, 55 Mercer St. (@Broome) NY (212) 239-6200.
Opens 4/1/2001 thru 5/12/01. Tues. - Wed. at 7pm; Thurs. - Sat. at 8pm; Sat. at 2pm; Sun. at 3pm.
Reviewed by David Lohrey based on performance of 4/10/02.
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