Creating a golem is a tricky proposition. Even the rabbis of legend found that the mud and clay Goliaths they brought to life to protect their communities from pogroms often went out of control and had to be put down. So the young artists participating in Traveling Jewish Theatre's Educational Touring & Outreach Program are brave souls to go poking around in this weird science with director and co-writer Eric Rhys Miller. Their Dirt & Glory: Return of the Golem plays two shows at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center before becoming available to tour schools, synagogues, and community centers. Whether the golem plays weddings and bar mitzvahs is something you'll have to take up with his creators.
The audience enters to find three scientists in white lab coats staring at various flasks, a PowerBook screen, a blackboard, and some kind of large egg in a plastic box surrounded by straw, shaking their heads and scowling. As soon as they start talking, it's all rhetoric and exposition. They don't know whether they're creating a man or a monster. There are vague references to a war, an enemy, cellular regeneration, Frankenstein. They're worried -- or at least the one male scientist is, played by Zac Jaffee -- about whether their creation will save humanity or replace it.
So they do what any good scientists would do: They put on a skit! "We're not the first ones to create a golem," he says. "If we dig back into the old stories, we might learn something!" To that end, the three become a rabbi in the generic "Old Country," his wife, and their daughter who has taken to making chickens explode in kabbalistic experiments. (Don't ask.) Jaffee and Emlyn Guiney sway back and forth between the usual comic portrayal of a nattering old Yiddish couple and anguished conversations about whether they should create a golem to protect the ghetto from goyish attack, in which their broad accents and hunched posture seem to fall away. Comic bits such as the rabbi saying "I could nosh" at inappropriate times mostly fall flat. Sara Zimmerman's mad scientist daughter isn't far from her more sober scientist persona in the framing sequence, only with slightly less deepening of her voice to sound grown-up and official.
We keep getting yanked away from the story back to the lab, almost always by the scientist who really doesn't want to consider any consequences, and just in case we don't understand how deeply wrong she is, Guiney plays her impatience as near-psychosis.
The most effective role here is the one we don't see, that of the golem himself. Embodied by a pair of black vinyl gloves, sometimes by some green goggles and heavy breathing, the hulking figure made of mud and faith is represented by each of the actors in turn, usually with arms held far from the sides like a cartoon robot or sinister teddy bear. In one striking scene all three with arms around each other become the golem, one for each of his hands and the tallest (Zimmerman) for the head, as he pummels two attackers within an inch of their lives.
From here, the story is familiar: The golem grows out of control, and has to be destroyed. But in this case the story pretty much ends here. "Let's go back to the story," the angsty scientists say, but there's no story left. One Hebrew letter on the golem is erased, turning "truth" to "death," and that seems to convince the scientists to follow suit.
But this golem doesn't really go out of control, or indeed do much of anything. He scares a few muggers and the hostile mob he was supposed to fend off, but the rest of the time he just sits around the house while the family talks on and on about maybe making him do housework. He floods the house in a bit now familiar from Fantasia in which he's asked to fetch some water, and he beats up a couple of guys who threw him down a well. For this he gets put to death? Forget a golem -- this family shouldn't be allowed to keep a hamster.
Maybe the golem has no chance to be scary because this play is supposed to be kid-friendly. Maybe it's because the show is scarcely an hour long. More likely, however, it's because the story has been kept as vague and archetypal as possible, from the war and science of the present to the ghetto life of the proverbial Old Country. One of the show's best lines is essentially a joke at its own expense, when the daughter says of the mute golem, "I don't think he speaks Yiddish -- or German, or Ladino, or whatever it is we're speaking."
In the end, the laboratory setting is apt. After all, this is a theater lab as experimental as the one it portrays, and the danger of the artists' creation getting away from them is as clear and present as that of the chemists. And like the rabbi of legend, when it starts to go awry, they cut it short.
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