Stuart Gordon, whose directorial film credits include H.P. Lovecraft’s “Re-Animator,” Ray Bradbury’s “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit,” as well as being co-creator of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” has returned to his improvisational theater roots in this Story Theatre-esque staging of six macabre Jewish tales, adapted by Howard Schwartz. Utilizing the self-narrating techniques of legendary Second City founder Paul Sills, Gordon adeptly guides an excellent ensemble through these fascinating morality plays, populated by demons, corpses, wizards and werewolves. Underscoring all the action is a zesty, if droll, sense of humor and the wonderfully evocative music of klezmer musicians Zinovy Goro (clarinet) and Galena Shlimovich (violin).
With minimal costuming and an open stage, the ensemble members flow in and out of characters, humans and animals alike, freely incorporating improvisational commentary while never loosing contact with the plot. The folk tales are all based on the original Kabbalah, the system of mystical Jewish thought and magic first codified some 1,700 years ago. Despite the plethora of villainous beings and creatures, evil never wins as sin always is demolished, usually by the sage-like wisdom of a Rabbi.
Resembling an episode of “Tales From the Crypt,” the opening playlet, “Helen of Troy,” is a foreboding saga of unrelenting lust as the wizard Joseph della Reina (Brendon Broms) is able magically to transport the beauteous and virtuous Queen Dolphina (Christine Kelly) to his bed each night despite the most stringent efforts of the King (Avery Schreiber) to protect her. The wizard gets his comeuppance when he greedily uses his powers to go back in time to conjure up the most beautiful woman in history, Helen of Troy, only to have her weathered corpse drag him down to his death.
One of the highlights of the evening is the first-act closer, “The Demon in the Water,” wherein two feuding families are shown the error of their ways by a ravenous demon (Georga Umano) and a very wise but humor-filled rabbi, portrayed to the twinkle-eyed hilt by Schreiber, a Second City veteran during the tenure of Sills.
Another tale that elicits some hearty laughs despite its macabre premise is “The Finger.” A young man on the eve of his marriage engages in a drunken night out with his pals. During a bit of revelry in the forest, the young man mistakenly puts a wedding ring on the finger of a worm-eaten corpse (Devin Price), who subsequently invades his wedding ceremony to demand he consummate the marriage with her. Once again it is the ever-resourceful Rabbi (Schreiber) who saves the day.
The free-wheeling potential of the Story Theatre performance technique is demonstrated to profound effect with the show-closing “The Speaking Head.” Utilizing their adept pantomime skills, the ensemble transports the audience through time and over distance as an evil merchant (Ian Patrick Williams) tricks the family of a devout young scholar (David Sean Robinson) into allowing the boy to accompany him to a far-off land to meet the merchant’s daughter. With all the mystical action of an Arabian Nights adventure, the now imprisoned young man is rescued by the efforts of a bodiless head (Broms).