Waiting for golem

The Golem inaugurates new JTS theater

In Jewish folklore, the golem is a creature not unlike Frankenstein's monster, a man-shaped thing made of clay and brought to life. Delving into its legend, Andrew Ordover's play The Golem is less a Halloween horror story than it is a historical drama with a pronounced supernatural element. While the golem eventually rises and rampages in the fashion of a Boris Karloff movie, Andover's play is mostly concerned with issues of faith versus reason and the forces of history on human choices. The Jewish Theatre of the South offers a rich and thoughtful production of the script that, like the powerful but shambling creation of the title, has a tendency to lumber along, especially in the first act.

Ordover sets his play in Prague of 1592, capturing both the lives of ghetto Jews and the political and scientific developments in the rest of Europe. The Turks are just south of Croatia, Galileo is running with Copernicus' astronomical theories, and the unquestioned leader of Prague's Jews is Rabbi Judah Loew (Marshall Marden). Emperor Rudolph II (Dan Triandiflou) even remarks, "If the Jews had a Pope, he would be Rabbi Loew."

A courageous civic leader, Rabbi Loew mostly comes across as a humble scholar and father to Rachel (Tara Ochs), the image of his late wife. He gently chides Rachel's fiancé Isaac (Brian Kimmel), a student whose imagination is fired more by science than the Torah: "Stars are scrolls, too, Rabbi." Marsden's Loew is the glue that holds the play together, proving both amusing and querulous, offering chummy prayers to the "Master of the Universe." But he also seems true to the period of the play and stays passionate in the face of grave responsibilities and horrible injustices.

The Jews of Prague have it bad, being restricted to living in the ghetto and from working in most professions. Things get worse when the tolerant-seeming emperor, needing money to fight the Turks, orders the Jewish money-lenders to call in their debts — at Easter, already a time of tensions with the goyim. When Loew points out the violence the Jews increasingly face, the Emperor shrugs, "Can't you just let your people die a little?" Triandiflou proves fittingly peevish and spoiled as an "enlightened" despot governed by self-interest.

Act One sets a deliberate pace, showing the increased pressures on the Jews, who include Barry Stoltze's wealthy money-lender and Maia Knispel as his daughter. In the face of increasing violence, Rabbi Loew hits on the notion of raising a golem to protect the community. When the golem (Big Jay Peterson) first appears, in silhouetted dreams and shadows, he's wearing a skin-tight brown body stocking that's about as unthreatening a garment as you can imagine.

It's a relief that the golem, known as "Yussel," wears conventional clothes for the second act. The characters recoil at the sight of Peterson ("He's a monster"), but in fact the big guy has a fittingly childlike demeanor, one that suits the golem's muteness. Drawn to Rachel and obeying her commands, Yussel can be a figure of menace and occasional amusement, sort of like Frankenstein or the Terminator.

Joanna Daniel narrates the play as Perl, whom we learn is the rabbi's late wife. She introduces the play from the perspective of modern Prague, with horns honking and tourists visiting the old Jewish quarter. Wearing a gown like she's en route to the Academy Awards, Daniel looks out of place in either time period, and by placing such emphasis on her relationship with Loew and Rachel, the action drags. A more tangible conflict comes from Loew's other daughter Leah (Monica Williamson), a Lutheran convert who lives outside the ghetto and offers a different point of view on assimilation.

Director Scott Robinson doesn't quite negotiate the play's shifts in tone and time period, with many of the golem's "action scenes" looking too stagy to be scary. At times the play itself has a surfeit of ideas, with Loew's vision of the 20th century Holocaust proving an interesting element but one that the script doesn't have time to deal with. Brad Hellwig has designed an effectively creepy cemetery that dominates the set, but the full moon that dominates some scenes looks oddly like a blazing sun.

The Golem is JTS' first production at the Morris & Rae Frank Theatre at Dunwoody's Marcus Jewish Community Center. It's an excellent performance space, with a wide, spacious stage and superb sight lines for the audience. The only drawback is that the center also houses plenty of athletic facilities, and during quiet moments you can hear loud cries of exertion or victory outside the theater. The Golem seldom excites its audience that much, but the script's richness of detail keeps the show from having feet of clay.

The Golem plays through Sept. 24 at Jewish Theatre of the South, Morris & Rae Frank Theatre, Marcus Jewish Community Center, 5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody, with performances at 8 p.m. Thurs. and Sat. and 3 p.m. Sun., with an additional 7 p.m. performance Sept. 24. $18-22. 770-368-7469.

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