Myra Chanin aka ‘Mother Wonderful’; Radio/TV Personality, Former Producer, ‘The Joey Reynolds Show’
I have always avoided spending more than seven consecutive days in balmy Boca Raton. Why? Because there ain’t much culture there. Actually the major artistic activity of palm-sheltered snowbirds is sneaking into three multiplex potboilers for the price of one senior citizen admission — hardly proof of intellectual perspicacity.
So why was this winter different? The certainty of the Mother of All Blizzards encouraged me to entertain heartfelt offers from casual acquaintances to squat in their guest bedrooms for “as long as I liked,” However, judging from their expressions of dismay when my luggage and I actually appeared on their thresholds I could see that these invitations had been sincere only until I accepted them.
A few days after I’d ensconced myself in a soon-to-be-a-former friend’s condo and was zapping a previous evening’s early bird scraps, my iPhone pinged a discount ticket offer to a musical drama, The Golem of Havana at the Colony Theater on Miami Beach’s fashionable Lincoln Road. It was the first production by Miami New Drama, a company just co-founded by Moises Kaufman, the lauded Pulitzer/Tony award-winning director of I Am My Own Wife, playwright of Gross Indecency, The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project and the equally talented Michel Hausmann, a Venezuelan-born playwright/director with impressive international credits.
i was intrigued by the title and theme of Hausmann’s contemporary version of the tale of the Jewish Frankenstein monster, created by the 16th Century Chief Rabbi of Prague to protect his exiled flock from local oppressors. I felt it had great prospects for attracting an audience in a city replete with Jewish and Cuban refugees who’ve often shared, with their descendants, their fears and feelings of helplessness as foreigners in a strange land. The Golem of Prague, who initially killed only tormentors of Jews, eventually murdered everyone including those it was created to protect, forcing its deactivation. The Golem of Havana sounded well worth a drive to South Beach, even though that meant sharing 42 miles of I-95 with seniors anxious to arrive early for early bird specials. Besides if The Golem of Havana proved less than magical, we’d only be a stone crab’s claw away from Joe’s Stone Crab, which always made any trip to Miami Beach worthwhile.
The theater was filled with an even mix of yarmulked snowbirds and brightly clad Cubanos, who all felt the haunting truths in the opening words of Hausman’s magnificent play, as uttered by the young narrator Rebecca Frankel (Liba Vaynberg).
Only your stories. This one is mine.”
The miniskirted, sweet-voiced Rebecca sang the story of the Golem of Prague to a Yiddish melody against a imaginative backdrop of illuminated cartoon shadow puppets before the setting and actions shifted to pre-Castro Havana where the entire cast performed Ray Sullivan’s exuberant Latino choreography to the you-walk-out-of-the-theater-humming-it title song by Salomon Lerner, a brilliant composer who’d mastered melody and rhythm in both Jewish and Latin genres with Len Schiff’s clever lyrics supplying additional pizzazz.
The story wove together the lives of three families — the displaced Jewish Frankels, the native Cuban Rondons and the-united-by-ambition-and-greed minions of the about-to-be-ousted-by-Castro’s-rebels Dictator, Fulgencio Batista.
The Frankels were economically and emotionally impoverished Holocaust survivors. The father, Pinchas (Allen Lewis Rickman) was a superb tailor who lacked any connections that would reward him with financial success. His dour wife Yutka (Yelena Shmulenson) was plagued with guilt about a decision made by her that led to her sister’s death, an event replayed in their daughter Rebecca’s nightmares which fuels her need for a magical protector.
Their maid, Maria Rondon (Rheaume Crenshaw) a descendant of slaves, was widowed when her husband was mistaken for a rebel and murdered by Batista’s thugs. She prays to an African goddess to protect her son Teo, an actual Castro rebel. Rebecca, who is closer to Maria than to her mother, joins in Maria’s rituals. When Rebecca’s prayer is actually answered, the family prospers.
Arturo Perez (Chaz Mena) an “adviser to the military” is actually a charismatic, manipulative Batista henchman. One of Arturo’s schemes, funded by Pinchas, gives the Frankels enough money to open a shop. Arturo also arranges for Pinchas to become Batista’s tailor.
The dilemma the Frankels face is whether to hide the wounded Teo and risk their newfound prosperity.
The direction is subtle and superb. The characters are real and the actors playing them are never maudlin. Sets, lighting and costumes display the triumph of imagination over funding. Special kudos to all, especially National Yiddish Theater and Coen Brothers favorites, Allen Lewis Rickman and his stage and actual wife, Yelena Shmulenson, the exquisite singing of Rheaume Crenshaw, her stage son Ronald Alexander Peet, Liba Vaynberg’s compelling innocence as well as Felipe Gorostiza and Chaz Mena playing the only thugs I ever wanted to dance with.
As for the identity of The Golem of Havana, I’ll never tell. You’ll have to see this play to find out. Suffice it to say that this Golem in South Beach will supply your spirit with sustenance that’s even more satisfying than anything but the jumbo claws you’ll find at Joe’s Stone Crabs.