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Ethnic Theater - Jewish

"The Golem, Methuselah, and Shylock"
Book review

We are all familiar with the Golem of Jewish folklore, Methuselah of the Torah, and Shakespeare’s Shylock, but playwright Edward Einhorn has put a different spin on each of these legendary characters. Einhorn’s take on each is indeed irreverent and quirky—and makes for good reading. Devoting one play to each personality, the plays, respectively, are “Golem Stories,” “The Living Methusaleh,” and “A Shylock,” plus a fourth play titled “One-Eyed Moses and the Churning Red Sea.” (The latter is an eight-page playlet written for a festival which demanded that pieces be written within a 24-hour period. It feverishly and wittily combines many of the traits developed more fully in the other three pieces.)

In “Golem Stories,” which opens the book (published by Theater 61 Press), Einhorn plays fast and loose with the writing genres, mixing theater of the absurd with gritty reality, the past with the present. Though he sets the play, supposedly, in Prague of 1590, he does not hesitate to use modern vernacular.

According to Jewish folklore, a sixteenth century Rabbi did indeed create a creature of clay to save his Jews from rampant anti-semitism. But Einhorn’s Golem may or may not be living, may or may not be human, may or may not be a rescuer of the Jewish people. Moreover, Einhorn’s Golem is a look-alike for the dead fiancé of the Rabbi’s daughter. Touches of “The Dybbuk”!

In short, Einhorn puts his own stamp on this Jewish folk hero. But the resulting drama is confusing. Exactly what is his theme? Is it better to submit to cruel discrimination and not make waves--or to fight back? Possibly this is Einhorn’s intent. But “Golem Stories” never focuses in on this authentic issue, despite the constant reiteration of ideas. And the time warp, in this case, does not work well.

A better work, in our view, is “The Living Methusaleh.” In this Einhorn has a grand old time, spoofing the Biblical tale with contemporary cliches, and the results are often hilarious. In fact, the play’s opening quotes unashamedly from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”—“but who calls that livin’—when no gal will give in—to no man what’s nine hundred years.” Einhorn uses wit and irreverence to examine Biblical—and timeless –themes. For example: Serach (Methusaleh’s wife) says, “He’s been saying he’s 969 for as long as I’ve known him, which is over 2000 years.” “Which makes you how old?” her husband asks, and she primly answers, “A lady doesn’t tell her age.” And when Methusaleh insists that he keeps himself fit, his wife insists that he should exercise more.

In short, “The Living Methusaleh,” which uses the Biblical framework, is a spoof of modern attitudes toward the aging process—with its comic and tragic aspects. But, all told, it boils down to a one-joke piece—a one-acter at best.

Best of all is Einhorn’s Shylock in “A Shylock.” It is here that Einhorn’s style comes into its own. He brilliantly interweaves fact with fiction, Shakespeare with Jewish history, past with present. Just as another Jewish playwright, Tom Stoppard, did not hesitate to put his own stamp on Shakespeare in “Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” so, too, Einhorn forges ahead.

In its very opening a character named Dr. Jacob Levy has come to Venice in search of Shylock. On checking into a hotel, he asks if Shylock is registered there. “We don’t allow Jews in this establishment. You’ll have to look somewhere else,” the desk clerk replies. But then he proceeds to register and welcome Dr. Jacob Levy.

Thus the stage is set for Einhorn’s marvelous take on the classic. It is “The Merchant of Venice” set on its head. The play moves with wit and madness from absurdity to absurdity, at a roller-coaster pace, as Levy tries to find the real Shylock. Even Hamlet appears in this “Shylock,” though this Hamlet has mysteriously changed gender. Jessica explains that she has disassociated herself “from that tribe” when she married Lorenzo, and Shylock (if indeed it is Shylock) reverts to pure Shakespearean lines as he mutters, “I’ll have my bond.”

“A Shylock” is a delicious piece which will hopefully find its way to many stages across our land and elsewhere. But, even on paper, it makes for good reading. Einhorn is an original thinker and a gifted dramatist. But in this book his considerable skills are best evidenced in this zany version of the timeless character.

-- Irene Backalenick
Nov. 21, 2005

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