Many years ago, on a remote Pacific island, several Japanese soldiers were discovered still fighting the Second World War. No one told them the conflict was over (or they refused to believe it), and so they held their positions for decades, awaiting news of a glorious victory.
Seeing the Living Theatre’s new piece, Korach—written and directed by co-founder Judith Malina—made me think of those stubborn Japanese stragglers. No one seems to have told the Living that the ’60s are over, so they keep struggling on with outdated theatrical methods in service of outdated anarcho-pacifist politics. You want to admire their dogged faith that theater can spur revolution. But you also want to grab them, shake them, and ask if they’ve read a newspaper, or been to a new piece of theater, in the last 30 years.
In Korach, Malina goes back to the source of civilization’s authority problems: Moses, the bossy biblical patriarch. True, he led the Israelites out of bondage, but then they were stuck with a leader. No more ungoverned happiness. And things only got worse: the Ten Commandments, sub-commandments about who could visit the tabernacle to view the Ten Commandments. Oy. We should have just kept dancing around the Golden Calf. Malina’s hero is Korach, a beardy kvetcher who opposes Moses’s power grab (and here even grumbles when manna tumbles from heaven—where’s the meat?).
To stage this primal scene, Malina draws from the Living’s bag of antiquated theatrical tricks (the fact that she helped invent these clichés, doesn’t, sadly, change their clichéd-ness). Aided by veterans from older Living pieces—blessed with biblical facial hair—and a corps of earnest young actors, Malina choreographs chanting choruses that trudge across the Sinai like ancient chain gangs, intoning dirges about political enfranchisement. Suffering Israelites approach spectators to beg for water (I didn’t have any, unfortunately, and the bar was closed).
With all the beards and sandals, the desert vistas painted on the walls, and the constant singing, the production alternately resembles The Ten Commandments and Jesus Christ Superstar. Malina’s didactic script hammers the same points over and over: Leaders bad; unrestrained freedom, good.
In Korach’s conclusion, the proceedings go from kitschy to insufferable. The curtains enclosing the tabernacle are drawn around to encircle the entire playing space—hooray, we’re all in the temple together! But the performers have also blocked all available exits. Now, smiling beatifically, they herd us into a circle, where, while receiving many uninvited touches, we’re encouraged to join in chorally singing banalities about unity in diversity.
Participation isn’t optional; the devotees nudge you until you get with Malina’s program. It’s a surprisingly authoritarian way to end a piece extolling personal freedom. And what kind of community does Korach create? A dictatorship where helpless spectators obey strangely cheerful minders, fulfilling a supreme leader’s vision of happy humanity—sounds more like North Korea than utopia to me. There’s a word for this kind of arrangement: It’s called a cult.