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Joseph McKenna is The Golem
(Photo: Aaron Espstein)
The suggestion given by the advance press for the Manhattan Ensemble Theater's revival of H. Leivick's The Golem, and by the wonderfully extensive dramturgical program insert, is that the production is intended to make us reflect on the conflict in the Middle East. Which, to a certain extent, it does; after all, this is a play about a Jewish community defending itself from sworn enemies and, in the process, creating a cycle of violence. But as much as this is an allegory of hatred breeding hatred, it is also a good, old-fashioned Frankenstein story. In David Fishelson's adaptation, directed by Lawrence Sacharow, both tales--that of the community confronting violence, and that of the a non-human creature trying to find his place in the world--offer much to think about. But neither is fully compelling.

Top billing for this show properly belongs to Joseph McKenna as the title character, but it instead goes to Robert Prosky as the Chief Rabbi of Prague, whose idea it is to conjure up a supernaturally powerful clay man (the Hebrew word "golem" literally means "shapeless matter") to be a "champion" for his community. It's 1580, not the best of times for Jews in Eastern Europe, and those in the Prague ghetto must contend with the viciously anti-Semitic Catholic priest Thaddeus (David Little). This fellow first appears in one of the opening scenes, gripping his Holy Staff like a cudgel, and has a sneering contest with the Rabbi. Thaddeus is about as villainous a villain as one could hope for; later, he slits a Jewish baby's throat in a temple.

Still, The Golem is no clear-cut tale of good versus evil. Though the Rabbi operates with a calm, I-know-what's-best-for-us smile, he is so obsessed with defending the Jews from Catholic persecution that he ignores all the repercussions, including the possibility that the Golem might do violence upon his own people. He even manages to dismiss the arrival of the Messiah: the Prince of Peace isn't as important as the violent work of the Golem.

Worst of all, the Rabbi ignores the Golem's feelings. Seriously. As given appropriately awkward life by McKenna, the Golem is--ironically, for a man made from clay and magic--the human heart of the show. Lumbering, bald, caked with gray-white makeup, McKenna never finds a moment of peace. He may be the champion of the Jews but the Jews are generally creeped out by him, from the Rabbi's wife and daughter (Lynn Cohen and Rosemary Garrison) to the collection of beggars who live in an abandoned tower on the outskirts of town. That tower is where the Golem ends up living and where his fateful confrontation with those nasty Catholics begins.

Robert Prosky creates life in The Golem
(Photo: Aaron Espstein)
Overall, MET has done a fine job of recreating this Yiddish Theater classic, but it's not a particularly engrossing entertainment. For one thing, the story rambles a bit: The Golem arrives, then he chops wood for a while, then we see the Catholics plotting...and, look, there's the Messiah. The Rabbi yells at the Golem, then at the Messiah, and so on until one gets tired of waiting for events to coalesce. Though many of these scenes are full of interesting, poetic discourse and are given a sort of supernatural luminosity by Sacharow (with a major assist from lighting designer Michael Chybowski), we are not sure which story we are to be invested in; the adaptor and director seem unsure whether it is the Golem's tragedy that the play is about, or the community's.

The show's most memorable performance comes from Jeff Ware as Tankhum, whose son was mutilated and slain by the Catholics; this horrible event has transformed Tankhum into a sort of divine madman, and Ware's evocation of ecstatic grief is extraordinary. The stage is visited by at least one actual prophet, Ben Hammer's magisterial Elijah (who travels as a duo act with Brandon Demery's serene Messiah), but Tankhum is the true, grim prophet of the piece--a wild-eyed, battered madman and a living example of the way that violence ends.

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