Friday, June 23, 2017

'The Golem of Havana': The imagination and moral choice confront national crisis

Reminders that art is not just a leisure activity or an outlet for self-expression are always welcome. With stunning effect, "The Golem of Havana" delivers an assertion that art may be crucial to survival — both physical and aspirational.
Rebecca reads from her booklet to the distracted Maria.

Rebecca, born in Havana to Jewish parents who escaped the Holocaust, is a young teen caught up in her artistic imagination applying the folkloric figure of the golem to superhero adventures. The graphic novel she's created represents the concrete expression of her adaptation, but the spiritual resonance of the golem for her becomes all-important in the Phoenix Theatre's production of a musical set in 1958 Cuba.

The 24th of July Revolution is about to sweep away the old order just as Pinchas Frankel, a tailor forced to flee wartime Hungary with his wife, Yutka, is poised to establish his own shop. Their lives are complicated unforeseeably by the involvement of their maid Maria's son, Teo, in the revolutionary cause. Rebecca's idealism about life and art inevitably draws her to the young fighter on the run, and the family is sucked  into a national maelstrom.

With a book by Michel Hausmann and music and lyrics by Salomon Lerner and Len Schif, "The Golem of Havana" offers a cohesive view of history's grip on questions of personal and family success. Directed by Bryan Fonseca, the cast smoothly melds ensemble and individual songs and dialogue to tell the story. Rebecca's golem is represented as a hulking, humanlike figure, traditionally conceived of as made out of clay or earth, that pops up from time to time in projections (by Izzy Rae Brown) of the girl's drawings. It focuses Rebecca's belief outside traditional religion that a protective spirit can be appealed to and may solve real-world problems.

The bromance of Pinchas and Arturo proves to be fragile.
The golem's success in this show is decidedly mixed, just as the benefits and evils of the Fulgencio Batista regime were followed by the benefits and evils of Fidel Castro's victory. The effects of that earth-shaking change have been a major Western Hemisphere preoccupation of the United States since 1959. Moral clarity in the show goes up to the point of reinforcing family unity and the virtue of courage, but not much further.

The songs are supported in this show by a five-piece band placed above and behind the set. Bernie Killian has created a simple, evocative set, with a Cuban-tile patterned floor backed by a row of Romanesque arches to form an arcade, which is a secondary playing space, along with an area representing a back room in the Frankel apartment. The accompaniment was varied, colorful, and often brash. Well-projected as it was, it occasionally covered the singers; spoken cues were sometimes audible on opening night. Laura Glover's lighting was eloquent in rendering both sunshine and shadow, the reality that glares and the reality shrouded in mystery.

Accepting a cigar from a dictator has consequences.
The girlish charm that Lydia Burke brought to the role of Rebecca was consistently appealing. I kept wrestling with the notion that she looked a little too old for the part. This may have to do with a nagging hunch I had that the show's creators thought of Rebecca as a reincarnation of Anne Frank. There was the same awakening toward maturity, a warm sympathy for humanity, an unquenchable idealism — and a need to record it all. The Frank family's years of hiding in Amsterdam spanned their diarist daughter's ages of 13 to 15; late adolescence is a different world. The similarity of last names reinforced my impression, with another name chiming in: that of Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and author of "Man's Search for Meaning." If there's anything dominating Rebecca's character and artistic obsessions, it's her search for meaning.

The wounded Teo ponders his next step.
But in a world where middle-aged actresses can believably (sometimes) play Shakespeare's Juliet, I must set these minor misgivings aside. Burke owned the role: Her singing tugged at the heartstrings, and she seemed to understand the character as resting on a fulcrum with naivete on one side, indomitability on the other.

One of the strongest  numbers in the show was a trio for Rebecca, her father Pinchas, and Maria. Eric J. Olson's Pinchas and Teneh B.C. Karimu's Maria were also consistently well-sung and played insightfully. Olson conveyed the tailor's perseverance  and trusting nature sympathetically. His duets with his Cuban friend Arturo (an exuberant Carlos Medina Maldonado) were among the show's other musical highlights.

Karimu registered the pain of Maria's constant anxiety about the well-being of her son, off fighting in the Sierra Maestra range and in constant danger. Her address to the gods of her heritage, drawn out because of her rapport with the questing Rebecca, had the ring of authenticity about it. That cultural foundation was echoed and completed by her son Teo in a scene with Rebecca. Ray Hutchins plays Teo with the kind of bitter resolve out of which revolutionaries are made (and which enables them to accept its atrocities). Teo's honoring of his mother's faith is a pro forma matter, but Hutchins put it across as part of the young soldier's essential connection to his people.

As Yutka, an even more conflicted character, Lori Ecker had the right haunted quality; the circumstances of her sister's loss to the Nazi takeover of Hungary weigh on her. The character is complex in ways that the show's creators draw out in an unsettlingly shorthand way, but Ecker made sense of it all.

Paul Nicely should also be mentioned for his suave, subtly menacing performance as Batista. Pinchas rises surely enough, thanks to Arturo, to get the assignment of fitting the dictator for a new suit. Their scene together had a finely strained camaraderie to it Thursday.

Pinchas' ascent to a high-status opportunity on the eve of the regime's collapse symbolizes the mixed blessings the golem of Havana bestows. It's a figure enlivened by Rebecca's devotion and artistic skill, but off the page never subject to her control. Her fashioning of this god of the household in both images and narrative is achievement enough. That's what art does, and it's no small thing.

[Photos by Ed Stewart]

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