Andorra and The Golem share the spiraling momentum of a vortex. The former contemplates the sole Jew in a provincial small town—a bright, callow lad who chafes under the condescension and outright bias of his neighbors; the latter hinges on a thick-tongued, powder-skinned giant summoned to protect the Jews of Prague against church-sanctioned pogroms. Both figures are outsiders, looked upon with various permutations of pity, fear, and contempt. Neither is what he appears: The young Jew is not a Jew, though his father told him so; the strongman is not a man, but a colossus forged from clay by a rabbi. They are inventions, and as their tales spin into catastrophic violence, their creators discover the terrible cost of playing God.
Inflamed by the ageless legacy of anti-Semitism, driven by Jewish bloodshed and retribution, Andorra and The Golem arrive on the New York stage in the same week, and their timing is notable, if not necessarily apt. Rarely in its tumultuous history has the future of a Jewish state been so threatened, both by terrorism and the brutal hypocrisy of Ariel Sharon and his fellow hard-liners. This de facto double bill reverberates with the latest headlines, but also raises questions about the uses of parable. Is this the right moment to translate the front page into metaphor via preexisting texts? Won’t the front page itself do for now?
True enough, defining the “usefulness” of art too often wanders into dead-end pretension and oversimplification, but these works all but demand the effort, since didactics are their most dynamic aspect. In Swiss playwright Max Frisch’s allegory of genocidal bigotry in a small, fictional European country (newly translated by the Voice‘s Michael Feingold), Andri (David Barlow) is a waiter with straightforward desires: He wants to be a carpenter, and he wants to marry Barblin (Maggie Lacey), the daughter of his adoptive parents (Boris McGiver and Laurie Kennedy). Self-determination is an exhausting task, however, when everyone in town seems to have indelible prima facie notions of who Andri is before he’s even decided for himself. In short, he’s a Jew: “clever,” “tight,” and boasting “more brains than feelings.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that, or so says the local priest (Nicholas Kepros), whose stooping platitudes are all the more infuriating for their apparent good intentions.
The increasingly enraged boy’s ethnic identity is a fatuous, self-serving improvisation—and so is prejudice, Frisch tells us. This wasn’t news even when Andorra premiered in Zurich in 1961, but Frisch raises the stakes by pulling the screen out from behind the Andorrans’ projections. Raised to think he was a foundling rescued from an ethnic purge in the presumably Aryan nation to the north, whose people are known as the Blackshirts, Andri is actually the illegitimate child of his “adoptive” father and one of those very Blackshirts, who’s simply called Señora (Pamela Nyberg); his beloved is his half-sister. By the time Andri’s dad finally fesses up, true and false have become mere articles of faith, and as Andri laments, “I’ve run out of belief!” A spotlight zaps Barlow just then, adding another exclamation point.
This scene epitomizes the Theatre for a New Audience’s production of Andorra, directed by Liviu Ciulei: stiff, emphatic, rather literal-minded. The actors are shouty, the staging clumsy (the blocking of a rape scene is especially unlikely), and once the Blackshirts invade, the metaphors for the Holocaust become so pointlessly shrill as to risk turning the Holocaust into a metaphor. As Andri’s alcoholic father, only McGiver breaks free of the play’s two dimensions. His defensive posture and short, sharp shocks of explosive anger convey a corrosive mixture of righteousness and despair. The father thought the truth would set them free, but it’s been battered beyond recognition by a lifetime of dissimulation.
The pogroms depicted in H. Leivick’s The Golem (1921) were also founded on a lie: rampant rumors of ritual murders performed on Christian babies. The legend of the Golem stretches back at least to the 16th century (when this version takes place), though its association with faux-occult killings began only with early-20th-century Hebrew and Yiddish literature. The myth of a towering earthenware homunculus who betrays his creator arguably inspired Mary Shelley, and has more recently provided raw material for Marge Piercy, Cynthia Ozick, Michael Chabon, and the X-Files writing staff.
Lawrence Sacharow’s rendition hardly lacks for ambience—the Golem’s brief and misbegotten animation transpires in shadowy, cavelike enclosures—but opening night proceeded via under-rehearsed lockstep. Even redoubtable stage veterans like Robert Prosky (as Dr. Frankenstein’s prototype) trip on their colleagues’ lines and traffic in amateur-hour declamation, while David Fishelson’s unwieldy adaptation is choppy when it means to be elliptical (perhaps assuming the audience’s familiarity with the story). In its latest form, the play’s power resides not in its execution but its evocations. A defender of the faith shape-shifts into unchecked aggressor, launching a vicious, virulent circle—much like the one you surely read about today, and will tomorrow.