In the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre’s production of “Golem,” the people are puppets (except for a ghost), and the man of clay is danced by a human being (Steven Ryan). And that’s how it should be, for although he doesn’t speak, Golem is a stand-in for man. He’s a creature who didn’t ask to be born, doesn’t understand his purpose and seeks love and receives punishment, both of which he accepts unquestioningly. Unlike Adam in the Garden, though, you couldn’t credit Golem with any kind of deceit — making him somewhat better, or at least more guileless, than the creature made by God.
The CAMT production that finished on December 4 — with original music by Frank London of The Klezmatics (and a seven-piece band), abstracted cage/building set pieces by Roman Hladík, and 20 marionettes of all sizes created by Jakub “Kuba” Krejcí, and moved by nine dancers/puppeteers — is hard to forget. For children it’s a romp, fun and different; for adults it’s all that, but tinged with sadness. What could be more Jewish?
The story of the Golem is less well known in America than in Prague, where Golem pictures rival those of Mozart and Kafka on souvenir mugs, chocolates and T-shirts. It helps to know the story, because there isn’t much dialogue — much of the show is danced (creative choreography by Naomi Goldberg Haas) — but you get enough from the narrator, Cantor (Ronny Wasserstrom), who sits at a potter’s wheel at the show’s opening and exhorts Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel to create the man of clay in the first place.
As the legend goes, in 16th century Prague, Loew, the chief rabbi, created a clay man, a “Golem,” solely to protect the Jewish ghetto from pogroms. After a while, the rabbi’s wife couldn’t resist using Golem once or twice to help with chores, which was outside of his extremely narrow ken. When asked to mop, he nearly drowned everyone. When asked to get fish for the Sabbath, he comically overdid it. Eventually, angered, he destroyed buildings and gentiles, and the rabbi had to take out the emet, or truth, placed in the Golem’s forehead, which had brought him to life. Legend has it that the Golem still lies in the attic of the Alt Neu Shul, in Prague, where the Nazis went to look for him.
The CAMT production was first presented at La MaMa Experimental Theater Club in New York City in 1997 (though with different cast members and choreography), after having been developed at several workshops, including one in Poland. It now reappears as part of La MaMa’s 50th-anniversary season. Since its debut it has also appeared at the Henson International Festival of Puppet Theatre, while “Golem Tants,” a wordless tune commissioned for this piece, was recorded by Itzhak Perlman and The Klezmatics for “Live in the Fiddler’s House.” CAMT, under the direction of Vít Hořejš, is not just a puppet company, but one of the most consistently exciting, truly forward-thinking theater troupes in town.