National Jewish Theater

Ever since the first hack playwright slapped together an adaptation of Cinderella and called it children’s theater, stage versions of fairy tales and other bits of folklore have been by and large cheap and disappointing affairs that capture little of the original stories’ resonance. Which is why Tom Mula’s adaptation of the medieval golem legend is such a treat. Mula has created a work that is far richer, more moving, and more complex than the original legend and its handful of variations. No mean accomplishment, when you consider the original tackles no less an issue than our eternal yearning to become as powerful as God.

There are several versions of the golem legend–which circulated through Central European Jewish settlements in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance–but they all contain the same essential elements: a rabbi, proficient in the magical arts of the cabala, creates a living, manlike creature–a golem–out of clay. Sometimes the golem is created merely to satisfy the rabbi’s grandiose defiance of natural law (which says only God can create life from nothing). In these stories, the golem inevitably becomes deranged and dangerous and ultimately must be destroyed.

Other times the rabbi’s motives are more benevolent: he wants a servant, or he is told in a dream that a golem will protect his people from Christian persecutors. In these versions, the golem is more hero than monster. Nevertheless, in the end it finally returns to lifeless clay, a reminder both of our own mortality and of the fact that our creations are as flawed as we are. (Golem is Hebrew for “unfinished” or “a yet unformed thing.”)

Mula’s version of The Golem draws on the best known of these legends, the story of the Prague golem, which also inspired German filmmaker Paul Wegener’s pre-Second World War silent movie, The Golem. The legend goes that Rabbi Judah Loew, who lived in Prague in the late 16th century, created his golem according to instructions received in a dream.

Mula embroiders the story considerably, adding a sweet subplot involving the rabbi’s teenage daughter (played charmingly by Kara Zediker) and a rabbinical student named Isaac (Scott Lynch-Giddings), and changing the ending to make the golem’s inevitable return to the clay all the more poignant.

He also makes his golem much more compelling than the awkward, stiff-legged creature in Wegener’s film. Mula’s silent golem, as expertly realized by Dev Kennedy, wins the audience’s love with the ease of a Charlie Chaplin. Mula’s creature is reminiscent of the many golemlike figures that haunt our popular culture. Like Data, the somber-faced android on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Mula’s golem seems saddened by the fact that he cannot feel human emotions. The golem, who has a green thumb, is also a lot like those sensitive robots in the early-70s eco-sci-fi film Silent Running, who prove to be more in tune with the earth’s fertility than their human keepers. When the ghetto is terrorized by marauding gangs of anti-Semites, the golem becomes a killing machine as efficient as Robocop.

Mula’s play is well presented here: Composer Larry Schankar echoes the references to pop culture with a score so reminiscent of Star Wars that it made me wonder if he was purposely drawing a parallel between Mula’s re-creation of the golem myth and George Lucas’s space-age evocation of Arthurian legend. And director Arnold Aprill manages to emphasize the play’s historical roots–everyone dresses in late medieval costume and speaks with that generic formality we associate with past eras–without stifling Mula’s ability to move a modern audience. Mula’s own performance as the rabbi is somewhat stiff, surprising for an actor whose portrayal of the Fool in Body Politic’s production of King Lear a few seasons back was so well conceived.

But by the play’s end, thanks to Mula’s excellent script and Kennedy’s fine execution, the golem becomes much more than a mindless humanoid run amok of the golem legends. He becomes, instead, a symbol of all that is incomplete in ourselves: our awkwardness, our mortality, our frailty, our uncontrollable anger. In the end, when Mula’s golem returns to the earth as all golems must, I felt the sort of sadness at his passing that I haven’t felt for an imaginary creature in a long time. I can think of no higher praise for Mula’s play than that.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Ebright.