The Golem | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Golem


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THE GOLEM, Chicago Jewish Theatre, at Red Hen Productions. In 1921 H. Leivick stirred political and religious debate with The Golem, his version of a Jewish folktale about a rabbi who creates a hero out of clay to protect Jews from Christian oppression. The play is also said to have influenced a generation of Yiddish writers with its sublime poetry.

But it's hard to appreciate Leivick's poetry in David Fishelson's tin-eared 2002 adaptation, which stumbles all too often into pompous pseudoreligious rhetoric. Nor is Fishelson a natural storyteller: he lurches from too slow to too fast and back again, dwelling on painfully obvious points, such as the fact that the poor need a protector, while passing over the story's resonant twists: the Golem's yearning to be fully human, his unrequited passion for the rabbi's daughter, his turn from hero to bloodthirsty killer.

Still, Leivick's ideas have survived. The night I saw the show, audience members debated key points in the lobby afterward, particularly the notion that the Messiah wants to redeem us all but his arrival has been thwarted by a people who prefer violence to peace with one's enemies. Watching the Golem's bloody attacks on the Jews' oppressors, it's hard not to think of the current Middle East crisis. David Zak's intelligent direction and sensitive cast deserve some credit for suggesting this interpretation, though at other times their straightforward, loud performances only succeed in making Fishelson's lack of poetry abundantly clear.

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