The rabbi has something to say

The rabbi has something to say
From: The San Diego Union-Tribune
Date April 2, 2001
Author: Anne Marie Welsh

Like the wisdom of the Meister Eckhart or Lao-Tzu, the tales of Rabbi Nachman, the last Jewish mystic, come down to us as sayings: “Through joy the spirit becomes settled; through sadness it goes into exile.” So what’s the meaning of a 225-year old enigma in the age of information? Everything, it turns out, for Elliott Green, the San Francisco nebbish who leaves word processing behind when he meets the rabbi and his creations during Yehuda Hyman’s wild and raw music-and-dance fable, “The Mad Dancers.”

The quirky and surprisingly funny work-in-progress opened Friday at the Lyceum Space as the kickoff to the Lipinsky Family Jewish Arts Festival. Don’t worry, be happy, “The Mad Dancers” doesn’t require much historical knowledge of the rabbi from Breslov, impersonated here by John Campion, in a wizardly shape-shifting performance as sweet as it is sharp. Philosopher Martin Buber, who compiled and commented upon Nachman’s 13 published tales, said the nature-loving mystic told his Hasidic stories in response to questions from his disciples. How to rejoice in the midst of sorrow? The answer to that one came in “The Seven Beggars,” the only tale the rabbi did not finish and the one that inspired Hyman’s still-in-process musical.

It opens with Nachman and four followers gathered for one last story-telling session, a confab that rises magnificently into song, before the beloved rabbi fades away from consumption. Stroking the cheeks of his dear friends, his eyes lit with love, Campion’s Nachman pulls us into the narrative, himself becoming some of the beggars, speaking cryptically, time-traveling to meet Elliott, the IBM-er chosen to become a prince of the soul. “May you be as I am,” the rabbi-as-blind man tells Elliott, planting a big wet one on the baffled crack typist’s cheek.

The nerdy anti-hero meets other beggars bearing messages, his strange journey punctuated by comedy sketches, some so hilarious they could play “Saturday Night Live.” Leaving his cubicle behind early on, Elliott heads out onto San Francisco’s Market Street for the compulsive ritual of his morning break. Sip, Bite, Read. A latte, a chocolate croissant, the Chronicle. Sip Bite, Read. Madonna. Britney Spears. Johnny Depp. Writer/choreographer Hyman plays Elliott with a bewildered innocence that’s part Bill Murray, part Candide.

A later sketch is the comedic high point. Elliott has almost made it to the allegorical garden planted by a deaf, sign language-speaking farmer (Jaye Austin-Williams). Instead he chooses the seductions of the Cafe Torrero where a belly dancer undulates, pillows cushion his generous behind and a manic waiter (Chaz Mena) describes the oiling, spicing, rolling, and baking of a chicken with sex-chat gusto.

There’s a wonderful Yemenite song for Steve Gunderson, the local musical comedy pro who’s thoroughly convincing in the curls and robes of a disciple. And playing multiple tempters and villains is Dimiter D. Marinov, sleek, sly, and insinuating.

Director Todd Salovey has managed to unify an evening of many conflicting strands and styles, mostly by the strength of his cast, though also by the simple imaginative power of the staging. The ensemble often performs, whether dancing or not, with the unanimity of a dance company.

Still, there’s a flatness to the action as its sprawling, fairy tale-like narrative circles around a couple of themes rather than gathering momentum and moving forward. Elliott Green is a satiric creation and as he moves deeper into the mystic tales, we expect a soul-revealing discovery, a kind of emotional sea change. Instead the ending relies on external dramatic events, and feels tacked on rather than organic.

Performances, however, are tiptop. Campion has been here often in tough, scary roles, including Yank in “The Hairy Ape” at La Jolla Playhouse, and the sicko womanizer Menelaeus last year at the Old Globe. The range of his talent is quite amazing in “The Mad Dancers.” As Elliott Green, Hyman brings sharp timing to the Yiddish humor and infectious moments of abandon.

If the slow-going second act could find the more effective rhythms of the opening scenes, the show might be more consistently compelling. With some deepening of Green’s character, and an ending that feels more organic, Hyman and Salovey’s revised piece could have a joyous theatrical impact that exactly parallels its life-giving mystical message.

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