Vilna’s Got a Golem” is a thoughtful drama with some strong writing that nonetheless misses its mark. In offering a balanced presentation of the conflict within the Jewish community between those who oppose and those who condone violence, author Ernest Joselovitz has not managed to dramatize the situation, taking his script to an abrupt and indecisive end.
“Vilna’s Got a Golem” uses a play-within-a-play structure. The context is a performance by a Yiddish theater troupe in turn-of-the-century Vilna of a play that takes place in 16th-century Vilna about the creation of a golem — a Frankenstein-like monster. The troupe is threatened by the presence of the city’s new censor. Since the censor doesn’t understand Yiddish, one of the actors “translates” an upbeat, noncontroversial synopsis of what is taking place. This gets a little sticky when the play-within-the-play portrays the golem killing a Christian at the order of its Jewish master. The censor, we are told, storms out of the theater and the actors must decide whether to flee or continue the show.
The cast makes an all-out effort to express the troupe’s fear of the censor (an offstage presence). Unfortunately, the censor remains more vague than ominous, and the intended tension does not build.
Nor does the tension of the play-within-the-play. There is some initial conflict between those who would build the golem to protect the ghetto community against Polish aggression, and the pacifist rabbi who refuses to share the secret formula for bringing the monster to life. But this tension is dissipated by a generally comic handling. And after the golem is brought to life, the conflict becomes all talk and no action. This throws the responsibility for drama back to the external play, but even that story does not advance.
Director Lou Jacob and a strong cast do a good job of conveying the anger, comedy and insight of the work. Richard Topol is particularly fine as Zavel, who authors the golem play and in it acts the part of a grief-stricken cobbler who brings the monster to life. Stan Lachow also stands out as Zeizel, the actor who soft-pedals the running synopsis for the censor and plays the righteous rabbi in the play-within-the-play.
David P. Gordon has created an evocative setting, and Greco’s costumes, for monsters and humans alike, are quite pleasing. Particularly noteworthy is the vibrant klezmer music created by Jeff Warschauer and played before and during the show by him and his accompanist, Deborah Strauss.