La MAMA E.T.C. To Reprise Dance-theater Rendition ‘Golem’

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In a featured presentation of its 50th Anniversary season, La MaMa E.T.C. will reprise “Golem” by Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre (CAMT) from November 17 to December 4, 2011.

The piece is a dance-theater rendition of the famed Jewish legend that may have been the first-ever puppet “Golem” when La MaMa presented it in 1997. The work is being re-conceived and re-directed by CAMT’s artistic director, Vit Horejs. The production has original music by Frank London (The Klezmatics) and choreography by Naomi Goldberg Haas. It is written by Vit Horejs and will feature nine dancers and puppeteers, live music and a cast of over 20 small to life-sized wooden marionettes.

“Golem” was developed in several phases in the early 1990s, including a residency at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland in 1996 and a premiere at La MaMa in 1997. It was presented by the Henson International Festival of Puppet Theatre in 1998 at St. Mark’s Church in NYC. Frank London’s “Golem Tants,” commissioned and composed for this production, was recorded with Itzhak Perlman and the Klezmatics in 1996 at Radio City Music Hall for Mr. Perlman’s CD, “Live in the Fiddler’s House.”

standing cages
The production which debuted at La MaMa in 1997 was produced as part of Henson Festival of Puppet Theater at St. Mark’s Church, 1998. Behind: Larry Goldhuber (Golem) in cage; (foregroundL to R) Don Downie and Isaac (student) puppet, Michael Greenlake and Rabbi Lev puppet, Carvel Wallace Jacob (student) puppet. Photo by Richard Termine.

The venue, La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East Fourth Street, has been a historical site of innovation in Jewish Theater since 1882, when it was known as the Turn Theater and home to the first Yiddish play in New York.

The Golem is an ancient Jewish myth (the word “Golem” appears for the first time in David’s Psalm 139) and is most familiar as the story of the venerable Prague Rabbi Loew (1525-1609). According to legend, in order to protect the Prague Jewish ghetto from persecution and violence, Rabbi Loew and his two students fashioned a walking clay giant by the Vltava River. This clay man, or “Golem,” was conjured to be the ghetto’s guardian. There are many variants of the story, all with tragic endings. In one, Rabbi Loew loses control of his creature; and Golem wreaks havoc everywhere and has to be stopped. To this day, the legend endures that The Golem lies covered by cobwebs in the attic of the Alte-Neue Shul, the famous 15th-century synagogue of Prague, where there are still visible steps leading to the Golem’s resting place.

Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre was founded in 1990 in New York City when Vit Horejs and Jan Unger, two Czech-born puppeteers, found and put to work two dozen antique marionettes that had “slept” for fifty years in another attic at Jan Hus Church on East 74th Street. With them, Horejs created “Faust,” one of his most enduring plays. He went on to create 20 more original works of puppet theater and dance, including innovative re-interpretations of classics, and assembled a company of actors, dancers and puppeteers that has performed his works in venues all over NYC including La MaMa E.T.C., Theater for the New City, Lincoln Center Out of Doors, NY Public Library and World Financial Center. (More info: www.czechmarionettes.org.)

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Wall outside the Old New Synagogue (Czech: Staronova synagoga; German: AltneuSynagoge) leading to Golem’s attic. Photo by Bonnie Stein.

In the CAMT production of “Golem,” the lead role will be performed by Steven Ryan costumed as a hulking clay man. The dancers, puppets, puppeteers and musicians freely interact throughout the modern musical drama, alternately portraying both the Jewish citizens of the ghetto and their Christian oppressors. The Rabbi is a 48-inch puppet animated by Alan Barnes Netherton, who doubles in the Rabbi character; and the Rabbi’s wife, Perl, is portrayed (also in duplicate) by a 48-inch marionette and by actor/puppeteer, Deborah Beshaw. Other dancer-puppeteers are Ronny Wasserstrom, Bridget Struthers, Alex Megan Schell, Fang Du, Scott Crawford, Janelle Barry and Kiku Sakai. The performers are accompanied by the Golem Band of Petr Cancura on reeds, Frank London on trumpet, Jonathan Singer on xylophone and percussion, Steven Whipple on bass and Mitchell Yoshida on accordion.

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Rabbi and his family. Puppets by Jakub Krejci. Photo by Jan Frank.

The signature feature of plays by Vit Horejs is the use of puppets (and objects) of many sizes, from six-inch toy marionettes to human-sized wooden figures and a variety of manipulated objects and props. “Golem” has twenty human puppets and an assortment of fish puppets, dancing mops and sundry found object puppets. Six of the puppets are 48 inches high, designed and constructed for the play by award-winning master carver Jakub “Kuba” Krejci, who lives in Prague. For his work on “Golem,” Krejci was nominated for American Theatre Wing’s 1998 Hewes Design Award. Two of the puppets in the play are from the CAMT collection of historic marionettes. One portrays the village “Yenta,” the other plays “Abe,” one of the elder Ghetto inhabitants who dances an intricate dance at Rabbi Loew’s wedding.

Composer Frank London is a Grammy-award winning composer, trumpeter and bandleader. He is featured on over 300 recordings, working with John Zorn, LL Cool J, Mel Torme, Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy, LaMonte Young, They Might Be Giants, Jane Siberry, Ben Folds 5, Mark Ribot, Maurice El Medioni, Gal Costa, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Itzhak Perlman. His works have been performed at international festivals from the North Sea Jazz Festival to the Tokyo Festival of the Arts to Lincoln Center. Celebrate Brooklyn, the Ancona Festival and the Krakow Festival of Jewish Culture have all made his work the special focus of their festivals. His “Carnival Conspiracy (In the Marketplace All is Subterfuge)” was #1 in Rolling Stone’s Top 10 Non-English CDs of 2006. Besides “Golem,” London was also commissioned by CAMT to create music for its epic telling of the history of the Lower East Side, “Once There Was a Village” (2007).

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Dancers and Ghettodwellers (puppets) in Rabbi Lev’s dream scene in 1998 production. Photo by Richard Termine.

Choreographer Naomi Goldberg Haas has worked in concert dance, theatre, opera and film and has collaborated with The Klezmatics and composers Michael Nyman and Max Richter. She choreographed the world premiere of Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner’s “It’s An Undoing World” (excerpts can be seen in the documentary film “Wrestling with Angels,” directed by Frieda Mock). She also choreographed Mr. Kushner’s “A Dybbuk” at the Public Theater and plays performed at The NYSF/Delacourte Theatre, MTC and the McCarter. Film includes Disney’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Her work with professional dancers and persons with disabilities was presented at the XVI Annual International Contemporary Dance Festival in Poland. She currently teaches at University Settlement, the Harkness Dance Center of the 92nd Street Y, NYU and Dance New Amsterdam and is on the advisory board of The Yard. She performed with Pacific Northwest Ballet after training from the age of 8 to 18 at the School of American Ballet and holds an MFA from the Tisch Dance Department at NYU. Since 2005, she has directed “Dances for a Variable Population,” which has been presented throughout NYC, New Haven and in Washington DC at the High Line, by Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and Harlem Arts Alliance, among others.

Costume designer Boris Caksiran has designed costumes for over 30 films, TV productions and operas, including “The Dark Side of the Sun” with Brad Pitt, “Savior” with Dennis Quaid and Natassja Kinski and “Violet Fire” (2007), the Multimedia Opera by Terry O’Reilly about the electricity pioneer Nikola Tesla at Brooklyn Academy of Music. He is winner of the 1996 Crystal Prism Award for Costume Design in Belgrade. Additional costumes are designed by Alisia Raycraft and Ann Kinney. Set design is by Czech artist Roman Hladik; lighting design is by Federico Restrepo. Assistant Choreographer is Alissa Mello.

La MaMa E.T.C. has presented most of the major works of Czechosolvak-American Marionette Theatre in the last 15 years and the troupe has been a significant aspect of La MaMa’s puppet theater programming. CAMT’s La MaMa productions have included “Golem” (1997, which was subsequently featured in the 1998 Henson International Puppetry Festival), “The Little Rivermaid Rusalka” (1999), “Johannes Dokchtor Faust, the Petrifying Puppet Comedye” (2000), “The Prose of the Transsiberian and of the Little Joan of France” (2001), “Don Juan or the Wages of Debauchery” (2003), “The Life and Times of Lee Harvey Oswald” (2004), and “Once There Was a Village” (2007), an ethno-opera with puppets, found objects and music by Frank London. Its most recent La MaMa production was a much-celebrated “Twelfth Night (or What You Will),” performed on three tea trays as part of La MaMa’s Puppet Series 3 in 2009.

La MaMa E.T.C. will present “Golem” in its Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East Fourth Street, Manhattan, from November 17 to December 4, 2011. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:30 PM. (No show Thanksgiving.) Tickets are $25; students and seniors $ 20. The box office is (212) 475-7710 and online ticketing is available at www.lamama.org.