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Hořejš, who also wrote the piece, tells a story with every element of theatricality available to him. The character of the village Yenta (Alex Megan Schell) is his invention, and the Cantor associating the rabbi’s students, Isaac and Jacob (Fang Du and Scott Crawford), with elements of fire and water is both kabbalistic and atmospheric.
The puppets are not just wooden puppets on strings; they are also found objects. The fish, for example, are oven mitts, while the rabbinic students are instruments. In fact, one has a body shaped somewhat like a cello. The show is performed without an intermission and has a dreamlike quality to it. Throughout, it’s hard to separate the dancers from their puppets. During the wedding of the Rabbi and his fiancée, Perl (both slightly larger marionettes, operated, respectively, by Alan Barnes Netherton and Deborah Beshaw), barefoot dancers twirl in a whirl of their puppets. It’s wild, but also logical. Afterward, a cloth is removed from the matriarch-in-waiting, Perl, so that we see babies carved inside her and small puppet babies at her feet.
London clearly has klezmer overtones in his music, but he also makes liberal use of jazz and improvisation. The animation of the Golem begins with a long percussive section that sounds like cowbells. A great bald baby who doesn’t know his strength, the Golem is three times the size of the puppets that brought him to life. He’s a gentle giant, though, and as he mimics the Rabbi’s hand gestures, his intrinsic sweetness is palpable. In a wonderful sequence, a wide-eyed Golem strolls through Prague, with alleys created by dancers, absorbing the world and its wonders with enthusiasm.
Prague seems almost another character in the play. The set consists mostly of wired, spired, rolling pieces that can come together to form a cage, or stand in a row to form a backdrop of the city. Dancers move the buildings and also play them: Their black costumes (by Boris Čakširan, Anne Morrow, Kenney Alysia Raycraft, and Theresa Linnihan) have building windows painted on the back, so when they put up their hoods and face upstage, they form Prague. When Golem destroys them in his rage, they fall to the floor in eloquent heaps. Haas’s expressive choreography has the dancers whirl to the music, spinning the puppets at a wedding, or rolling as waves, with fish in them.
Some sequences eluded me: I didn’t quite understand what was happening with an apple cart (operated by La Mama family member Kiku Sakai) that Golem upset, which contained the head of a man. And in an early pogrom sequence, I was confused when it looked as though Perl had died. I think now that it was meant to be the mother of his adopted daughter, whose wedding happens later in the play. But these details didn’t really detract from the overall power of the piece. Wasserstrom’s ghostly Cantor is appropriately plaintive, particularly when singing Kaddish after a pogrom. His speech alternates gentle, Yiddish-inflected English to tell the story with somber, more ghostly statements about God, man and the world. There are many lessons to take from the production — man is unable to control his instruments; man shouldn’t attempt to be like God — but the one that especially touched me was how Golem, pushed to the limit, did not turn on the Rabbi. In some versions, he does, but it’s more effective here, where he doesn’t. It brings him to the level of an ideal servant, of a Creator unworthy of him. Fairy tale, indeed.
Gwen Orel is the only journalist who writes for both the Forward and Irish Examiner. She publishes the blog New York Irish Arts and has a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh.