EgoPo Classic Theatre continues this season’s Festival of Jewish Theater with a new take on the popular tradition of THE GOLEM. The original world premiere production, devised by EgoPo’s acting ensemble, artistic team, and director Brenna Geffers, combines a cast of eight live actors with Czech-style puppets by Martina Plag, and original Klezmer and folk music, with Josh Totora on accordion, Dave Jadico on clarinet, and featured vocals by Sarah Schol.
Ultimately based in ancient texts and revived in many variations throughout the centuries, the most famous incarnation of THE GOLEM tells the story of Maharal (Judah Loew ben Bezalel), the late 16th-century head rabbi of Prague. The wise Rabbi Loew made the legendary figure from mud and animated it through ritual incantations, in order to protect his Jewish community from pogroms during the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, including the anti-Semitic attacks of the blood libel (a vitriolic rumor that the blood of Christian children was used by Jews to make Passover matzos). But the golem became an increasingly violent monster, spreading fear, killing Gentiles, and eventually turning on his creator and attacking other Jews. Maharal deactivated his golem, but stored the body in the attic of Prague’s synagogue, where it could be restored to life when needed, in times of persecution.
In EgoPo’s new production, fittingly set on a train from Prague to Lodz in October 1941, the eight passengers, all wearing an identifying yellow star patch and carrying a suitcase containing their most valued possessions, are being relocated. They miss their loved ones and lament the upheaval of their lives in Prague, as they travel to resettlement and an unknown fate in Poland during the Nazi occupation. Some try to be optimistic, others are fearful, and others angry, as they come to know each other en route, and their personal stories are revealed.
To pass the time, and to enjoy a brief distraction from their unfathomable situation, they find comfort, community, and self-expression in a series of reenactments of the familiar Jewish folktale. Sprinkling their speech with passages of Jewish expressions and rituals in Yiddish and Hebrew (written in consultation with EgoPo’s dramaturge Glenn Odom), they are desperate to keep their culture and religion alive in the face of expulsion and–as the audience knows—attempted extermination.
In the midst of her busy week of rehearsals prior to THE GOLEM’s opening, Geffers discussed her concepts for the show and the importance of its theme with STAGE.
STAGE: What inspired you to do THE GOLEM as a musical, with puppets?
BRENNA GEFFERS: Lane [Savadove, founding Artistic Director of EgoPo] and I both wanted to do the show, but the music and puppetry came later, after doing the research and reading many different golem stories, including the three predominant ones that we use in our production. The idea of multiple stories of the same basic myth led to the concept of puppets and music to capitalize on the storytelling format; the characters each tell/perform their own tale through the medium of the puppets and with original music.
STAGE: Since this was an ensemble-created piece, casting was obviously of the utmost importance. Did you have a good idea before the process began as to which actors you wanted, and who would be competent in all the necessary areas—acting, writing, musical performance, and even puppetry? Or did you do a traditional casting call?
BG: It was a combination of the two–some ‘go-to’s’ for the casting and artistic team, but we also did open auditions. We needed a variety of people, and cast four actors we had never worked with before [Kevin Chick, Lorna Howley, Dave Jadico, and Genevieve Perrier]. Both the musical director [Andrew Nelson] and puppeteer [Plag] were there for the auditions, to ensure that the individual stories would be different enough, with a variety of personalities, not just the usual ensemble members of EgoPo [including Schol, Totora, Ross Beschler, and Griffin Stanton-Ameisen,].
STAGE: What is it about this original retelling of a familiar myth that you hope will most affect your audiences?
BG: As a director, I keep asking myself if it’s centered. THE GOLEM is an interesting myth, of a character that can both protect and destroy (not unlike Frankenstein, Darth Vader, and even Disney’s THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE), so the question was: Who would need to conjure a defender most, and when? Our different characters conjure different versions based on their own personal backgrounds and needs.
STAGE: EgoPo is known for doing themed seasons. What value have you found in this approach to programming, and in the 2011-12 Jewish season in particular?
BG: Exploring the Jewish faith and culture was a meaningful experience for everyone. As far as the format of passengers on the train from Prague to Lodz, we know something they don’t; they didn’t have a clue where they were going or what the outcome would be. They were also people who didn’t know each other when boarding the train, but had to come to know each other along the way. The situation isn’t specified to the audience; the play is not a docudrama or a piece about history or life in a concentration camp. It’s about characters on the precipice of change, not knowing what’s ahead of them. The stories are a distraction for some of them on the train ride, something to do to pass the time. But for others it’s something different—it’s more of a memory play.
EgoPo is keeping the memory of THE GOLEM alive not only with the play, but also with two Passover Seders on April 6th and 7th upstairs at the Prince Music Theater. The company welcomes Jewish and non-Jewish audience members alike to share in the celebration.
Written by the EgoPo Ensemble
Directed by Brenna Geffers
March 28-April 15, 2012
EgoPo Classic Theatre
Prince Music Theater Cabaret
1412 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19102
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