I saw my first Lally Katz play in early 2000 at the La Mama theatre. It didn’t quite work for me at the time, but the ideas and execution were intriguing. Over the next few years, while Tim and I reviewed for our website, Stage Left, I kept seeing shows by Katz: Pirate Eyes, Dead Girls are Fantastic, Henrietta’s Last Safari.
I interviewed Katz in 2001 and we talked briefly about what her shows might look like if a theatre with budget, experience and a uniformly talented cast took on the job.
Now, at last, with A Golem Story, I know the answer. Her show looks amazing. In the last decade, Katz has honed and matured her skills without losing that surreal, dreamlike quality she always wrote so well. The story is replete with both high drama and humour, and has a tone that is simultaneously childlike and profound. In the hands of director Michael Kantor, a fabulous cast, imaginative set design and gorgeous soundscapes, the result is really something magnificent.
A Golem Story is set in 16th century Prague when, as legend has it, the Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel created a golem to defend the Jewish population from violence after they were accused of murdering Christian children for strange rituals.
At the heart of A Golem Story is one of Katz’s ‘lost girls’, who feature so significantly throughout her work. Aheva (Yael Stone) has been exorcised of the possessing spirit of her fiance, who committed suicide, but she is now without memory and, she thinks, without God. She is meant to work in the synagogue as a maid, but her world is confusing and full of mysteries. Things are being kept from her and no-one will tell her why her fiance killed himself or what she may have done to trigger it. Her role in assisting the Rabbi to bring the golem to life is pivotal to learning the answers to those questions.
Brian Lipson as the Rabbi is riveting, his stage presence an excellent balance for Yael Stone’s intense portrayal of the girl who yearns to know who she is and where she belongs. Greg Stone brings a rakish air to his Guard Captain while Mark Jones’s Emperor is a witty delight. The rest of the cast, which includes the wonderful Dan Spielman, also provide fine performances.
Jones also served as musical director for the production, and he has achieved something special. The Yiddish songs performed throughout by the cast provide an astonishing soundscape and add texture to the drama (and sometimes melodrama) of the production as a whole.
The wooden set, lit in part by candles and the shimmering spotlight that represents the golem, is a combination of clean lines and earthiness. Those contrasts capture the contrasts of the script and the characters. As always with a Lally Katz play, I am not entirely sure what to think of it as a whole yet. There are certainly comments in there about the monsters we create and then lose control of, and what those monsters may choose for themselves. These ideas can relate readily to the consequences we are already experiencing of modern technology, social media and biological engineering.
I have other thoughts, about women, knowledge, love and power, about victims seizing control of their own lives, about what happens when Frankenstein’s monster becomes self-aware, all percolating in my head. It’ll probably be a few days before they coalesce into something sharper, but that’s what I’ve always loved about the best theatre. You catch yourself thinking about it for days afterwards, sometimes much, much longer. This play is strange and beautiful and I’ll be thinking about it for a while yet.
It’s a joy to see one of Katz’s plays finally get the director, cast and crew who know how to get the very best out of it. A Golem Story is visually and aurally lush, engaging on its surface level and intriguing in its other layers. If you like stories about monsters and people, and especially about how they are sometimes the same thing, you should see it.
A Golem Story by Lally Katz is playing at the Merlyn Theatre at The Malthouse on Sturt Street until 2 July 2011.