Clay Feet

A new version of the homemade-monster legend feels unfinished

In the opening scene of Traveling Jewish Theatre's Dirt and Glory: Return of the Golem, three scientists wrestle with a complex problem: how best to animate an inanimate being. Having crunched numbers, performed chemical reactions, and stared at an oversize egg in a glass box for untold amounts of time, the biotechnologists finally substitute their test tubes and beakers for time lines and books, and look to history for answers. The past, however, is as muddy as the clay from which the golem -- one of the most important figures in Jewish folklore -- was created. When the scientists re-enact the classic version of the golem narrative in an attempt to understand the moral implications of their lab work, they soon discover that there are as many ways to look at a giant breathing lump of clay as there are outcomes to an experiment.

The golem myth has been around for thousands of years. The oldest stories date back to early Judaism. The Talmud, for example, describes Adam as initially being created as a golem when his dust was "kneaded into a shapeless hunk." In the most famous version of the golem legend, which first appeared in print in 1847 (and is the basis of TJT's adaptation), Rabbi Loew builds a golem with clay from the River Vltava to help defend the Jewish ghetto from Christian attack. Although the behemoth proves to be a valuable self-defense mechanism for Prague's Jewish community, it becomes increasingly violent and uncontrollable. In the end it has to be destroyed. A fable about power run amok and the ambivalent outcomes of human "progress," the story has exerted a powerful influence on artists for hundreds of years, from Paul Wegener's 1920 silent film The Golem to Michael Chabon's 2000 novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Motifs from the legend can also be found in narratives as diverse as Frankenstein and The Sorcerer's Apprentice.

TJT's family-oriented version draws upon various sources of the narrative to explore the ways in which human beings surround themselves with golemlike creations in an (often misguided) attempt to make the world a better place. At one point in the production the golem is put to work carrying water for the rabbi's wife. The disastrous consequences of this simple chore echo similar events in The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Elsewhere, the creature is passed off as a "mute Russian cousin taken in as a mitzvah." The production further alludes to other golem types from folklore, from a female version to a calf-size one -- perfectly proportioned for the Sabbath table.

Dirt and Glory: Return of the Golem.
Devra Aarons
Dirt and Glory: Return of the Golem.

Details

Through Jan. 1

Tickets are $10-30

522-0786

www.atjt.com

Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center, 1414 Walnut (at Rose), Berkeley

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In his program notes, director Eric Rhys Miller describes Dirt and Glory as being about the "power and the danger of human creativity." Creativity -- in the sense of imaginative capability -- is a constant thread throughout the piece. The play not only alludes to a number of different golem legends, but also, over the course of the hourlong ensemble performance, actor/creators Emlyn Guiney, Zac Jaffee, and Sara Zimmerman bring the dungy monster to life in a multitude of ways. It's a good thing that most versions of the story state that the creature is mute, because the actors, who all play the golem at various points in the show, illustrate its presence with bare-bones physicality. Simple props from the world of science such as a pair of goggles and thick, black gloves are used to evoke the golem at different times, bringing Lunatique Fantastique's object theater work to mind. Elsewhere, the performers group together in front of a strong light, creating a monster-shaped shadow on the floor.

The fact that we are able to follow the story even as the actors flip between two worlds (a modern-day scientific laboratory and the Prague ghetto) and among assorted characters is testimony to both the power of our imaginations and the performers' skills. Tiny adjustments in costume and major changes in physicality instantly (and improbably) turn three scientists into a rabbi, his wife, and their adopted daughter. Jaffee makes a skullcap out of an anti-fume face mask and develops a cartoon rabbi's stoop and nasal twang. Zimmerman creates the character of Rivka, the rabbi's wife, by tying her lab coat around her waist like an apron, croaking, and walking with bowed legs. By girlishly knotting her lab coat at the front, Guiney transforms herself into Liesl, the daughter.

Given all the effort and imagination that have gone into creating this multifaceted golem story, the play seems, unfortunately, to cave in on itself. This result is ironic, considering that the moral of the story is about how the creation of artificial life leads to self-destruction. The performers valiantly try to make up for the clunky conceit by giving the playacting a fun, improvisational quality. But the scientists' uncomfortable or embarrassed looks and their reliance on ambient "mood music" from a laptop computer to help create the ghetto atmosphere soon feel repetitive and dull.

Also, the golem simply takes on too many forms, many of them underdeveloped. Even though the actors make us aware of its presence using simple, skilful techniques, the effects lack conviction and power. For example, it's hard to get a feeling for the awesome immensity of the monster from the flat floor shadow created at certain points by all three actors clumping together in front of a light. The moment when the rabbi's shadow is cast against the back wall as the character wrestles with his conscience is much more impressive. That shadow -- looming, red-eyed, and huge -- would make a much more powerful visual motif for the golem than the array of laboratory paraphernalia used at other points in the show.

The word "golem" is used in the Bible to refer to an embryonic or incomplete substance. Despite the creativity of the ideas, Dirt and Glory feels like a work in progress, an unfinished sculpture in clay.

 
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