Golem or no, Vilna may have bitten off more than she can chew.
In Ernest Joselovitz's defense, his 1996 play Vilna's Got A Golem is an ambitious undertaking dressed in motley clothing. It takes on European history, Jewish folklore, racism, cultural identity, religion and morality. Nonetheless, it opens like a circus: a clarinet's noodling notes dancing over a skirmish of klezmer music as the Mogulesko Yiddish Troupe, a rogue band of traveling family players, bound onto the makeshift stage of their wooden wagon box with booming voices and bright smiles. A candy-apple curtain, painted as backdrop, boasts the curly white letters of "World Premier." By all outward appearances, we're in for a zany night at the theatre.
But the setting of this play-within-a-play is Vilna, Lithuania, a historic and cultural landmark in modern Jewish history. In Vilna, Eastern European Jews both flourished and suffered inestimable tragedy for hundreds of years. Volumes have been written about Vilna (or Vilnius). In the 16th century, as Catholic Poland emerged as one of the largest and most powerful nation-states in Europe, this capital city was divided between Christian soldiers and Jewish ghettos. Lithuania was ceded to Russia in 1795, and occupied by Germany in World War II. Basically, there was never a good time by modern standards to be a Jew in Vilna. Life was cruel, uncertain and often short. Even so, it was a place where Jews persisted in relative prosperity -- intellectually, religiously and commercially -- despite oppression by the Christian, and later Russian, oligarchy. Perhaps it's this complex, rather than merely bloody, history that appealed to Joselovitz as an unmistakable setting for his black comedy.
It's a risky move. As one disconcerted theatergoer was overheard to say, "I remember the real story...They're making a mockery of it!" Certainly this story about violence and retribution is not a mockery, but with its vaudevillian slapstick and gimmicky antics, you have to accept on good faith the playwright knows where he's going.
For Joselovitz, the play begins on opening night for a Yiddish-speaking audience, 1899. Though spoken in English, we understand the Moguleskos' play, set in 1540 and written by young actor Zavel, is being acted in Yiddish. Uncle Zeizel (convincingly played by Art Jacobson, in the dual role of Uncle/Rabbi), cautiously translates the increasingly militant exposition into sugar-coated, self-deprecating Russian for the unseen "distinguished guest," observing ominously in our midst.
Zavel the character is a young man devastated by the loss of his wife and child to unspeakable acts committed by Christian soldiers. Consumed by despair, he enlists the help of best friend Zebi (our narrator) to create a golem, a mythical automaton of death and destruction, formed of mud and straw and brought to life by incantations from a "Book of Forms" stolen from the rabbi.
This Golem, an 8-foot construction of cartoonish proportions (based in part on the vindicating Golem of Prague of Jewish folklore), responds to Zavel alone. The more obsessed Zavel becomes with golem justice, the more the hamlet of Vilna, 1540, starts losing its religion -- and the more nervous Zavel's 1899 family players become. Some of the funnier lines of the play involve Uncle Zeizel's translations of the action onstage:
Zebi (Kevin Ellis Teed) raves excitedly to us, the Yiddish crowd, about the scene in which "the killing machine is tested...the first time in 1,000 years a Jew fights back and gets away with it!"
While Uncle Zeizel, wringing his hands, translates, "ahem...in which the Golem, a mudpie plaything for peasants, is introduced to the neighborhood to play with our Christian friends."
Joselovitz has received grants from the NEA, the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, and the Fund for New American Plays. Vilna is an award-winning play, first produced in 1996 in Philadelphia, and later by the American Jewish Theatre in New York. It is rife with provocative language, graphic descriptions of violence, religious intolerance and flying body parts. At least one shot will be fired. While meant to be taken seriously, none of this will be treated very seriously.
Some of our finest moments in arts and entertainment are wrenched from our greatest sorrows, and it's to this tradition -- and to a vibrant Yiddish theatre that rose from the streets in New York City in the early 20th century -- that Joselovitz intends to pay homage with his multi-tiered play. There are, however, some problems to overcome. He has written a modern play in a dead tradition for an audience that may or may not understand that history; and to complicate matters, the over-the-top nature of his script leaves very little room for error. Without the armor of perfect timing and delivery, this silly play-within-a-play risks becoming also a farce-within-a-farce.
Our local Vilna, a Borderlands Theatre production, has all the makings of a good show. UA grad student Michelle Harvey has designed a spare but lively set of fun, roll-down backdrops (constructed and colorfully painted by Brian McGinn, with help from his Tucson High fine-arts magnet students). Annette Hillman, who's premiered several works juxtaposing humor and seriousness with her Bloodhut troupe, guest directs a cast of recognizable local talents. Alas, the acting is inconsistent and the pacing too slow.
If you have time to think about it, slapstick isn't funny. It needs momentum for maximum effect. We need a rapid, even chaotic pace to believe in such silliness. And perhaps ironically, without that comedy there is very little tragedy. Without that adrenal, circus feeling of actors getting completely out of hand, we don't feel that striking blow at the play's darker moments. Instead we move steadily forward, questioning the meaninglessness of it all, until those converging plots begin to feel as muddied and soulless as the golem itself.
Vilna is a challenge. Each of its actors has a dual player/character role to fulfill. It seems better suited to deft comedians, skilled with dialect and mannerism, who can also be convincingly dramatic when the scene -- such as Zavel's graphic description of his wife's murder -- demands. It's a mandate this cast enthusiastically tackles but with only modest success. The best performances here come from Art Jacobson's sensible Uncle/Rabbi; and Halsy Taylor, Zebi's critical wife Basha, who not only has some of the play's better lines, but also reveals a lovely alto in a solo performance of the Golem song.
Among Vilna's finer comedic moments are the ruminations of Rabbinic students Isaac and Isador (Dwayne Palmer and Harry Susser), who postulate on "the downside of the upside" of having a golem, with precise gestures and gentle irony.
All in all, I've faced worse in the line of duty than Vilna's Golem, and laughed less besides. For those with an open mind and an interest in new plays, it merits seeing and critiquing. But if you don't like adult theatre dressed up "like a children's play," to quote my favorite audience heckler, best to either set aside your preconceptions, or sit this one out.
Vilna's Got A Golem, a Borderlands Theater production, continues through February 27 at the Tucson Center for the Performing Arts, 408 S. Sixth Ave. Show time is 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $8 to $15, available at Antigone Books and the Borderlands Theater office. Call 882-7406 for reservations and information.