by Lisa Traiger
Don’t expect a mystical retelling of the legend of 16th-century Rabbi Judah Loew and the infamous protector of the Jews he created out of clay in Taffety Punk Theatre Company’s latest production of The Golem. In this one-man show, actor/writer Daniel Flint has immersed himself in Austrian-born fantasy novelist Gustav Meyrink’s 1915 book of the same name. It’s far from the Jewish legend its title suggests. While the work is based in the mystical city of Prague, with its dark, winding streets and alley ways traversing the ancient and historic Jewish ghetto, the novel, and this newly adapted play, focus on the character of Athanasius Pernath, a jewelry merchant and repairer of antiques. The 70-minute intermissionless production is on stage at the intimate but comfortable Capitol Hill Arts Workshop in the District through May 18.
The action follows Pernath as he seemingly retells and relives some of his dream-like and nightmarish experiences in the Prague ghetto. There he encounters a rich miserly junk dealer, Aaron Wassertrum, who seeks to revenge the death of his eye doctor son; Rabbi Hillel, an adviser and friend to Pernath, serves as a stabilizing element amid the character’s hallucinatory ramblings, which are underscored by an above stage DJ, Jupiter Rex, who serves as a sort of singular Greek chorus, providing an introductory poem and a few riffs during the work and a driving and unabashedly contemporary spin on this 19th-century tale retold.
During the evening Flint has the unenviable task of embodying Pernath and a dozen additional characters who all at some point enter into Pernath’s purview. Aside from the greedy and conniving Wassertrum, and the calming Rabbi Hillel, there is Zwakh, a marionette performer. Here Flint picks up and manipulates a crude wooden-blocked marionette. There’s Angelina, a rich countess and her friend and lover Dr. Savioli; Miriam, Rabbi Hillel’s pure and chaste daughter; and Rosina, the red-haired daughter of Wassertrum, and at 14, already a prostitute in the ghetto.
At the crux of Meyrink’s retelling of the Golem tale is a story of, as the playwright Flint notes, “a journey of spiritual transformation.” In that journey Pernath wrestles with his own visions of good and evil, re-enacted by Wassertrum and Hillel, and he toggles between reality and fantasy. If you were expecting a version of the Golem tale as told by Yiddish poet H. Leivick, or in an early film version by German expressionist film director Paul Wegener, this is not that tale.
In fact, the Golem as a character figures not at all in the action. Instead its presence is in a story told about how Rabbi Loew brought the clay monster the Golem to life through the mystical forces of Kabbalah: he penned the Hebrew word emet – truth – and placed it in the Golem’s mouth. The man-made creature came alive and served as a protector of the Jews who were accused of the scandalous blood libel – using blood of Christian children to bake Passover matzot. This notorious lie, perpetrated across Europe and spanning centuries, in Prague was ameliorated through folk tales in the Jewish community through the legend of the Golem, who became the community’s superhero protector. Alas, the legend continued, when Rabbi Loew neglected one night to remove the letters and the Golem ran amok, destroying the ghetto and those he protected. The legend became a cautionary tale of man playing God.
For Meyrink, and in Flint’s adaptation, the milieu of the Prague Jewish ghetto, with its vibrant array of characters of all stripes and walks of life, provides the background for a psychological exploration into the character of this man and his musings. The idea of the Golem lingers, perhaps, in the suggestion that this was a city inhabited by those awash in the Jewish mystical and kabbalistic leanings of a time long past, but not forgotten.
Kudos to sound designer Mehdi Raoufi for creating an aural world within which Pernath can wrestle and interact with multiple characters. Lighting designer Chris Curtis has taken a small space and made it expansive with various pools and washes that carve the space into attic rooms, underground passages, winding streets and the like.
Flint set out on a challenging path in adapting Meyrink’s novel for the stage. The work doesn’t always succeed, but it’s interesting going as he wrestles gamely with the material, delving deep into soul-searching depths to reach a truth that, perhaps, Rabbi Loew sought so many centuries ago.
The Golem is onstage through May 18 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop in the District. Tickets, at $15, are available by calling 202-355-9441or visiting http://www.taffetypunk.com/index.html.