The struggle of the Jewish people against difficult odds, from without and within, was the primary subject of H. Leivick's 1921 play The Golem. That play, translated from the original Yiddish, has arrived at the Manhattan Ensemble Theater in a beautifully realized, yet unfortunately unfulfilling adaptation.
What unquestionably works is Lawrence Sacharow's direction. He has beautifully presented the tale of a rabbi in 16th century Prague who fashions from clay a servant of immense strength to do his bidding. Sacharow skillfully navigates the story, clearly and imaginatively staging the earliest hopes of the Jewish people, and the tragic results of their good intentions gone awry.
Sacharow's vision of The Golem is solidly represented by Beowulf Boritt's striking unit set, which looks itself to have been fashioned out of clay. It's infused with life by Michael Chybowski's striking lights, bringing heat and depth to the cold world of Leivick's Prague.
The Golem is strongly anchored by its two lead performances. Robert Prosky as the rabbi and Joseph McKenna as the Golem (named Joseph) complement each other beautifully. Prosky, with a kind, grandfatherly air about him seems a significant tie to the modern day, speaking at once for the pain of Jews today that flood the newspapers and television news. McKenna's Joseph is less tied to reality, an other-worldly myth come to life who is an embodiment of the greatest fears of the past and the present. There's a strong familial relationship between the two, and the chemistry is ideal for the characters. It's difficult to imagine these roles being better cast.
But they, and the rest of the production, are thrown severely off-balance by two important factors. The first is David Little in the role of Thaddeus. The Catholic presence in the play, Little's performance frequently comes across as uncontrolled and irrational, too often the senseless villain longing for an outlet.
The second, and more destructive, is David Fishelson's adaptation of Joseph C. Landis's translation. The achievements of Sacharow, Prosky, and McKenna seem all the remarkable given the lack of life in the script. The words have all apparently been chosen with tremendous reverence and precision, resulting in a presentation of the words far too dry for emotion they are supposed to contain. There is little range or magic in the words; they're adequate, but little more. The production is forced to transport us where they cannot.
That makes for a frequently rough journey, but most of the time, it doesn't seem like that bad of a trip. The Golem is solid, but never amazing; clever, but never enlightening or enervating. Still, the show serves as an excellent example of how great theatrical artistry in the right places can overcome weaker contributions elsewhere. For the work of Sacharow, Prosky, and McKenna, if nothing else, The Golem is a must-see.
Manhattan Ensemble Theater