28 August 2016

'Golem' (Lincoln Center Festival, 2016)

According to Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish, golem, which is pronounced like (but is otherwise unrelated to) the Lord of the Rings character Gollum, is a Hebrew, not Yiddish, word that means ‘matter without shape’ or ‘a yet-unformed thing.’  The word appears in Psalms 139:16 and elsewhere in the Old Testament, as well as the Talmud, which explains how Adam was formed from dust, became a ‘shapeless mass,’ and was eventually brought to life.  In Jewish legends developed during 5th to 15th centuries, the golem was an image or form that’s given life through a magical formula.  Folk stories arose of wise men in eastern and central Europe who could, by using charms, instill life in anthropomorphic clay effigies that were believed to offer special protection to Jews against anti-Semitic attacks and pogroms. (It’s also a Kabbalistic legend.  The Kabbalah, the book of Jewish mysticism, features numerology and the magic of letters in certain arrangements, and one of the ways a golem is brought to life is by placing a Hebrew word or series of letters in its mouth or on its forehead.)  There are many tales differing in location and how the golem is brought to life and afterwards controlled.  As Rosten recounted the phenomenon:

The most famous of these imaginary creatures was the Golem of Prague.  In the seventeenth century, a legend grew around Rabbi Judah Lowe (or Low) of Prague [1526?-1609], a renowned scholar who was supposed to have created a golem to help protect the Jews from many calamities the anti-Semites attempted.  The golem helped Rabbi Lowe bring criminals to justice; he exposed spreaders of anti-Semitic canards; he saved an innocent girl from apostasy by force; he even discovered in the nick of time that the Passover matzos had been poisoned!

Originally passed on by oral tradition as a warning against hubris, the story has been transcribed numerous times over the centuries.  In the 20th century, it’s also been the subject of a number of films, starting in the silent era.  The legend was probably an inspiration to Mary Shelley (1797-1851) for her novel Frankenstein in 1818 and may have had significant impact on Wolfgang von Goethe’s (1749-1832) “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (1797) and the play R.U.R. (1921) by Prague dramatist Karel Čapek (1890-1938), which introduced the word robot into the English language.  

The best-known rendition of the story is arguably Der Golem, a 1914 Austrian novel by Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932).  Another rendition is a 1921 Yiddish-language “dramatic poem in eight sections,” Golem by H. Leivick (pseudonym of Leivick Halpern, 1888-1962).  In 1923, Romanian composer Nicolae Bretan (1887-1968) wrote the one-act opera The Golem.  Nobel Prize-winner Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-91) wrote a children’s version of the legend in 1969 and Elie Wiesel (1928-2016) also wrote a children’s novel based on the folktale in 1983.  Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) discovered the Meyrink novel sometime after World War I and it influenced his subsequent writing greatly, especially his works of “magical realism.”  In 1958, Borges published the poem about “El Golem.”  In the 21st century, there have been female golems and both genders have appeared in comic books, graphic novels, and video games, as well as films and TV shows. 

In Meyrink's expressionistic novel, the unnamed narrator assumes the identity of Athanasius Pernath, a Christian jeweler and art restorer who lives in the Prague ghetto, during a visionary dream.  While the novel generally centers on Pernath’s life, it also chronicles the lives of his friends and neighbors.  The story is a disjointed and fragmentary tale of encounters Pernath has with people in the ghetto, meant to convey mysticism and hallucinatory episodes.  Meyrink reveals over the course of the novel that Pernath, who’s forgotten his past, suffered some sort of mental illness when he was younger and was institutionalized and the veracity of his accounts is in question.  The Golem of the title doesn’t figure prominently as a character in the novel, but is rather a vague presence that used to stalk the ghetto in the 16th century.  It begins to appear in Pernath’s visions after a man brings him an ancient book of Jewish mysticism (almost certainly The Kabbalah), whose illuminated initial letter needs to be restored.  (Believe it or not, I actually read this novel in a German course in college, though I have very little specific recollection of it.  It’s extremely difficult to follow—even in English, much less German.)

1927, founded in 2005 by director, writer, and performer Suzanne Andrade and animator and illustrator Paul Barritt, specializes in combining performance and live music with animation and film.  Central to 1927’s vision is the exploration of the relationship between the live performer and animation to create dynamic and innovative live performances.  “1927 began when I started working with Suzanne,” said Barritt.  “She’d done theatre before and I was making films.  We named the company after the year that saw the end of the silent film era, and the release of Metropolis”—the film by Fritz Lang that was one of the last great silent movies, though other sources assert the name refers to the year The Jazz Singer, considered by some the first full-length talkie, was released. 

The troupe’s hybrid work combines speech, film, music, song, movement, and handmade animation and aims to fuse these disparate elements in an intricately choreographed harmony.  It takes the troupe as much as two to three years to create a show and nine or 10 months to rehearse it.  Having started out on London’s cabaret scene, 1927 made its début with Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2007, winning several awards.  Devil went on to two seasons in London and toured around the U.K. and across the globe.  The company took home the 2008 Peter Brook Empty Space Award for Best Ensemble and two 2008 New York Drama Desk Award nominations (Unique Theatrical Experience and Projection & Animation).

The company’s second production, The Animals and Children Took to the Streets, premièred at Australia’s Sydney Opera House in 2010 and again garnered acclaim and awards, eventually being performed over 400 times in 80 venues across 28 countries on 5 continents.  In 2012, 1927 collaborated with Berlin’s Komische Oper to create its first opera, a reimagining of Mozart’s The Magic Flute co-directed by Andrade and Komische Oper’s director Barry Kosky with animation by Barritt; the show is still in the opera company’s repertoire and has seen new productions around the world.  Paul Barritt’s short film, White Morning, débuted at the 2014 London Short Film Festival, again winning critical attention, and went on to further film festival appearances. Since that time, 1927 has experimented with and explored new and challenging combinations of live performance, film, and animation (on a relatively low-tech level: they don’t use computer animation or CGI, though computers do aid in controlling the performances). 

In 2014, 1927 created a stage adaptation of the golem tale inspired by Meyrink’s novel. which Barritt describes as “a kind of mystical, hallucinogenic thriller.”  As we’ll soon see, 1927’s Golem diverges substantially from the 100-year-old book.  The play was developed at the Harrogate Theatre in Harrogate, England, in July 2014 and had its world première on 22 August 2014 at the Salzburg Festival in Salzburg, Austria, running there through 27 August.  Over the following year, Golem played in several theaters in England, principally London (Stratford Circus, 14 November 2014; Young Vic Theatre, 9 December 2014-17 January 2015; Trafalgar Studio 1, West End, 14 April-22 May 2015) and Brighton (The Old Market, 21-22 November 2014), before going on an international tour to Taipei (National Theater and Concert Hall, 12-15 March 2015), Paris (Théâtre de la Ville, 27 May-4 June 2015), Moscow (Chekhov International Theater Festival, Mayakovsky Moscow Theater, 23-27 June 2015), Beijing (National Center for the Performing Arts International Theater Festival, NCPA Drama Theater No. 2, 29-30 August 2015), Madrid (Festival de Ontoñio a Primavera, Teatros del Canal, 9-12 December 2015), and Adelaide, Australia (Adelaide Festival of Arts, Dunstan Playhouse, 8-13 March 2016).  Golem, co-produced with the Salzburg Festival, the Théâtre de la Ville, Paris, and the Young Vic Theatre, London, made its U.S. première this year at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina (Sottile Theatre of the College of Charleston, 8-12 June), and then came to New York City from 26 to 31 July as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, where Diana, my frequent theater partner, and I saw it at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater of John Jay College, west of Columbus Circle, at the 7:30 performance on Friday evening, 29 July. 

Likening Golem, written and directed by Andrade with animation created by Barritt, to “a giant graphic novel burst into life” in its Lincoln Center Festival publicity, 1927 characterizes its “synthesis of handmade animation, claymation, live music, and theater” as “a dystopian fable for the 21st century” which explores “who—or what—is in control of our technologies?”  In an interview with David Tushingham, dramaturg of the Salzburg Festival, Barritt stated: “If there is one part of [Meyrink's] book that has ended up in our show, it’s that social comment aspect.  The rest of it, whilst it was certainly a spring board into the idea of doing the Golem myth, we dismissed fairly early on.”  In this “dark and fantastical tale,” the company posits that “humankind’s downfall comes about through a time-saving, life-simplifying gadget bought by the masses—a nightmare of the digital revolution made all the more ghoulish by the candy-colored world in which it is set.”

The performance starts with a voice-over narrator (Andrade) explaining, ”We live in a world where people want for nothing, we are safe and secure—we are progressive, we believe in the new . . . .”  Taking us back to a simpler time, when people used pencils and ate aspic jelly with corned beef, the voice introduces us to the family of librarian Annie (Esme Appleton), her nerdy brother Robert (Shamira Turner), and their Gran (Rose Robinson).  Annie leads a punk-rock band called Annie and the Underdogs made up of her brother and their odd-ball friends who sing about revolution and anarchy in a basement.  Robert has a tedious and repetitive data-entry job in a department that “backs up the backup” of Binary Back Up.  Among his co-workers, who have their own communication system in which they converse in binary code—0’s and 1’sis Joy (Robertson), who catches his eye (Robert never having had a girlfriend) and is soon promoted to “head of stationery” (where her post, high above her co-workers, is in the Stationary Station [sic]).

Robert’s daily walk to work is a marvelous juxtapostion of animation and mime as he walks jauntily (think Chaplin’s Little Tramp without the cane) in place before a stage-width projection of the rundown shops and businesses (the names of some of which are chuckle-worthy on their own: Cod Is Dead Fish and Chips, Bog Standard Restaurant, One Eyed Jack’s Optometry, Helen Back’s Osteopath) along his route.  (Barritt based the streetscape on photos he took of downtown Los Angeles when he was there with another 1927 production.  It’s part of L.A. that’s “kind of been left and you’ve got all these old 20s cinemas, which are just empty,” says the animator.  The Huffington Post reviewer, though, likened the street scene to “Bleecker Street circa 1970.”)  On his way home one evening, Robert visits the store-front shop of inventor Phil Sylocate (Will Close); Robert’s former schoolmate convinces him to purchase his newest creation, a Golem, a giant clay man (more-or-less anatomically complete) who’s programmed to obey its master’s every wish.  (Phil Sylocate’s name is a pun on phyllosilicate, the mineral of which clay is largely composed.)

To bring Golem to life in the morning, Robert just whispers the magic words, and repeats the spell to deactivate him at night.  While Golem is awake, it tirelessly follows Robert’s every command and soon Robert has it doing all the household chores and even assuming his duties at work.  When Golem starts to speak (in the soothing, automated voice of Ben Whitehead, reminiscent a little of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL), however, Robert is at first surprised.  But Golem seems loveable and helpful at first, and Robert is recognized at work for his efficiency.  Golem begins to give Robert fashion suggestions, career counseling, and dating tips, and the advice is so effective that Robert’s life is significantly improved, as he attracts Joy’s attention and advances his position at work.  (Ironically, Golem is himself influenced by technology: he gets the ideas he passes along to Robert from the advertising slogans and sales pitches he hears on television.)  Robert, with a newly-acquired girlfriend, dresses more fashionably (in costumes, designed by Sarah Munro, that seem inspired by those of Italian Futurist performances of the 1920s).  But soon Robert upgrades to Golem Version 2, which is trickier and more powerful.  “Move with the times or you’ll be left behind,” Golem 2 repeats as it takes more and more control of Robert’s life.
As Golem becomes more and more prominent in Robert’s affairs, the street of independent shops along which Robert walks is rapidly taken over by chain stores all bearing the name “Go” Something-Or-Other (“Go Pasta,” “Go Friends,” “Go Fiends”—even a travel agency called Go Away); the divey little hang-outs where Robert and his friends used to go turn into strip joints.  It’s all indicative of the take-over of mindless consumerism and corporate branding.  The specter of mass-conformism takes hold of Robert’s formerly individual and slightly anarchic world as 1927’s Golem asks, “Do you want to be a nobody or an everybody?”  It’s an old threat—as familiar as the aforementioned HAL computer or Čapek’s R.U.R. (which, Barritt contends, “suggests that one day mankind will never have to work, left to think and create and better himself”): our labor-saving devices make us so dependent on technology and mechanical assistance that they become the masters and we humans, the servants.  (No less a scientific luminary than Stephen Hawking told the BBC in 2014: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”)  “Although we are very reliant on the technology,” says Andrade, “we also dictate the technology and are constantly dirtying it up.”  The universe of 1927’s Golem, however, is so cleverly depicted that its hoariness is not a tremendous detriment.    

As 1927’s own mission statement asserts, combining live performance with animation is the troupe’s stock-in-trade, its principal focus.  The entire performative experience becomes cinematic and multi-dimensional.  As a play, Golem lacks a number of attributes—if it were longer than its 90 intermissionless minutes it would have become enervating, for instance—but the actors interact so seamlessly with the animated environment that the production feels like a single, integrated entity rather than disparate technologies stitched together.  (In addition to Barritt’s animation and film work and Munro’s costumes, Golem has a projection screen design by James Lewis, sound designed by Laurence Owen, and music by Lillian Henley, all of which are as important to the production as the actors and the animation.)  One reason might be that the performances of the actors, as directed by Andrade, and Barritt’s film animation are developed at the same time, with Barritt attending rehearsals and using input from the stage work to guide and inform his graphics.  So we see animated-film neighborhoods pass by as the live actors mime-walk down the sidewalk, live characters heads popping out of cartoon windows in the backdrop, or snoring ZZZZZZZZ’s appearing on the backdrop above live actors’ sleeping heads.  (In one wonderful scene, the claymation creature holds a cartoon umbrella over live-actor Turner’s head—and it looks absolutely believably real.)  As the actors do their work, however, production technical manager Helen Mugridge controls when the animations happen in real time in line with the 500-plus cues.  At the same time, live on stage, Henley on the piano and Close on percussion synchronize Henley’s silent-movie score with the technical cues so that the live music, the animation, and the acting all work in sync.

The technique of coordinating live actors with animation on a screen isn’t a cake-walk, apparently.  “By interweaving a near-constant stream of live animation with the performers’ actions, 1927 requires that its actors stay close to the 300-square-foot backdrop on which the animation is projected,” observes New York Times reporter Eric Goode.  “But not too close.  Bumping into it also interferes with the illusion.”  To fit with the animation, the actors’ marks for every position are set out on the floor in glow-tape in a “baffling array of dashes, plus signs, arrows and other glyphs.”  (Goode described the stage at the Spoleto Festival USA as “riddled . . . with ‘spikes’: pieces of glow-in-the-dark tape designed to help actors find their exact spots on an unlit stage.”)

Barritt explains: “Try as we may to deepen the playing area, it doesn’t really work.  The actors really can’t interact with the animations that way.”  Even an actor turning her or his head to look at an image on the screen “would ruin the visual.”  Goode calls it “useful but risky technology [that] fits perfectly with the subject matter of ‘Golem’” and dubs it the company’s “droll Edward Gorey-meets-Max Fleischer aesthetic.”  (Gorey, 1925-2000, is most known for his eerie cartoons in such publications as the New Yorker.  Fleischer, 1883-1972, was an early animated filmmaker who between 1918 and 1957 created, among other films, the cartoon characters Betty Boop and Koko the Clown, and the series of shorts of Popeye the Sailor and Superman.  He often used live action in his animated movies.)  Actress Turner affirms, “It’s like trying to make a play and a film at the same time.”  Of working with Golem on the screen, Turner says, “Getting the logic down of how to interact with him took me a while.”  Will Close, who plays Phil Sylocate among others, explains: “The way Suze [Andrade] directs is to make as much as possible in the animated world three-dimensional, so that draws out Golem.  He’s not just on the screen; you can really feel that he’s at the table, which is partly achieved by animation and staging techniques but actually the acting goes such a long way with it, and he comes out of the screen if it’s done in the right way.” 

The animation isn’t just a backdrop, the projected version of painted scenery in front of which the performers act, it’s also the play’s environment, the virtual version of three-dimensional constructed scenery and the actors pop in and out of projected windows and doors.  (Think an animated rendition of the Joke Wall on the old TV show, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.)  Whether constructed, 3-D set pieces or projected animation, however, both scenic environments are stylistically of a piece so that designers Esme Appleton and Barritt’s flats and wall fragments and Barritt’s projections coordinate to create a variation of a silent-movie world.  In addition to Henley’s music, many of Barritt’s cinematic techniques continue this evocation of the silents of the ’20s.  One frequent practice is ending a scene by “Looneying,” a fade-out that ends in a small, black circle that shrinks to nothing as at the end of a Looney Tunes cartoon, a tactic that just reeks of old-time flickers.  (The actors’ Chaplinesque walk further evokes the silent-film era.)

Golem’s costume and make-up style is another continuation of the silent-movie look.  Sarah Munro’s designs include mostly monochromatic (in the beige scale), slightly geeky clothing (lots of sweater-vests) that might have looked at home in the 1920s, paired with the Futurist attire I mentioned earlier, a theater and art style that was also in vogue in the ’20s (and, perhaps not coincidentally, focused on technology and modern engineering, among its other concentrations).  The characters’ make-up is also based on silent movies, with while face-paint, heavy eye make-up, and Harpo-Marx wigs.  (Robert’s is a brick-red “Carrot Top” afro which, with his round-lensed, black-framed spectacles, contributed greatly to his nerdy appearance.)

Given the needs of this show, the acting was magnificent.  (As Christopher Isherwood of the New York Times rightly observed, “The performers are not required to do much in the way of emoting.  The characters are essentially cartoons themselves.”)  It’s unquestionably idiosyncratic and even eccentric, not suitable for ordinary pays from the Greeks to Shakespeare to David Mamet and Nicky Silver.  But for Golem (and probably most, if not all, of 1927’s output: “It doesn’t really differ that greatly” from the troupe’s other shows, says Barritt), it was extraordinary.  I’ve tried to reveal some of what’s demanded of the actors to coordinate with the animation, but aside from—or outside of—that, the troupe’s performance style is demanding and exacting.  Clearly, not only the actor’s blocking must be precise for the illusion of interaction between the live action and the animation to work, but the timing has to be virtually perfect so that the actor’s lines and movements mesh with the background and the animated characters.  (This is where Mugridge’s expertise comes in.)  1927 has this down pat.

The acting company is, needless to say, an exemplary ensemble.  But it’s an unusual kind of ensemble.  In most ensemble companies, the actors all work together in a way that makes them appear to be parts of an integrated whole and no individual performance stands out above any of the others.  The actors are like moving parts of a performance machine.  In Golem, the actors worked together seamlessly enough, like that performance machine—but they each stood out individually as a unique and differentiated persona, even several personae since most of the cast plays more than one character.  Will Close’s Phil Sylocate was as distinctive as his Julian, one of Robert’s co-workers.  Rose Robinson’s Gran stoods out as clearly as did her Joy.  In fact, if I’m honest, I’d never have guessed that these roles were played by the same actors if I hadn’t looked at the cast list after the performance.  And yet, taken together, the whole company was of a single piece—as if, if they’ll pardon the unintended implication, Barritt had created them along with Golem and the denizens and structures of the neighborhood.  As a theatrical experience, watching 1927’s Golem was truly exhilarating. 

I’m going to comment about one performance, not because it was better than the others or somehow violated the ensembleness of the production but because one peculiarity enhances its effectiveness.  The performance was Shamira Turner as Robert and the peculiarity was the casting.  I have no idea why Andrade cast a woman as Robert; I know that she’s new to the company and Golem is her first 1927 production.  Her work in the show was flawless—and I didn’t know the actor was female until, again, I looked at the program afterwards.  But what I did notice was that this Robert seemed very young, little more than a teenager, and very innocent.  I kept thinking the actor was a kid.  (Upon considering the performance, I’d also add it was reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin, which may have been the source of Turner’s mime-walk style.)  Not only did this make Robert vulnerable and open to influence and manipulation, but also endearing and engaging.  A harder or more resistant—more mature, shall I say—Robert would have damaged the play’s performance, I’m convinced.  Putting Turner in the part clinched it—at least for me.  I don’t know if Andrade knew this going in and acted on that intuition, but even if it was just a happy accident or the result of necessity (which, as we all know, can be a mother . . .), it worked out like gangbusters.  (As those great philosophers Keith Richards and Mick Jagger once said:  If you try sometime you find / You get what you need.)

When asked about the band members of Annie and the Underdogs, Barritt laid out his vision of the theme of Golem:

These characters are representative of a politically impotent generation, in other words our generation [Barritt was born in 1958, making him 57-58] and all of those that are growing up behind us.  Everyone can see what is wrong with the world.  It is not a difficult thing to pick apart the problems with the way industrialized consumer-driven democracy doesn’t work.  What is difficult is finding a solution: something that generations of people brought up on the sickly sweet heroin of market-driven popular culture are finding impossible ways to comprehend, let alone do anything about. . . .  And what are we doing?  Making a massive theater show about the subject that will be viewed by a, relatively speaking, elite class of wealthy consumers . . . I rest my case.

But a theme alone doesn’t make a play.  Longtime ROTters will remember that I have a two-part criterion for good theater: it must do more than tell a story and it must be theatrical, that is, use the unique assets of the live stage as much as possible.  Well, there’s little doubt that Golem is theatrical—it uses the attributes of live performance and then some—but the story part is deficient.  Now, 1927 has a point it wants to make, to be sure, so on the surface Golem meets both parts of the criterion—but it’s such a cliché that it’s little more than an excuse to hang the cleverly told story on, like a wire hanger holding up an elaborate, magical costume.  (It doesn’t help, at least in the articulating, that Barritt often sounds like an old-line socialist reciting Marx . . . and I don’t mean Groucho!  Fortunately, that’s not in the play, only in Barritt’s head.)  If it weren’t for the stunning and mesmerizing tech of 1927’s production, Golem would be downright silly.  Happily, however, that production is more than sufficient to enliven the 90-minute performance enough to outweigh the inadequacies of the text. 

Andrade’s script is also too enamored of the distracting sidebar, the little vignette that’s curious and perhaps emotionally evocative, but has little to do with the story or its point save atmospherics (a melancholy French chanteur named Les Miserables, played by Close, for example), and indulges this penchant often enough to dilute the overall impact of Golem; even Annie’s punk band seems to have been an idea conceived originally to be central and significant, but which now adds little to the play.  Furthermore, in the end, the revolutionary impulse that Andrade and Barritt seem to want to inculcate comes to naught since the consumerism represented by the Golems is inescapable, like the proliferation of the computer and the smart phone in our world.  Resistance, it seems, is futile.

Show-Score once again used out-of-town performances in its tally of reviews, so I’ve recalculated its findings to include only notices of the Lincoln Center Festival appearance of Golem.  (This includes a review in the Philadelphia Inquirer, even though it’s an out-of-town paper.)  Show-Score surveyed nine reviews of the New York City presentation of which 89% were positive notices and 11% were mixed; there were no negative reviews in Show-Score’s sample.  Golem received an overall score of 84 for the New York notices alone. 

In the Wall Street Journal, Heidi Waleson, affirming that 1927’s “silent movie” approach in its previous productions “was a lot of fun,” wrote that Golem “is even more dizzily inventive and colorful,” even if the play ends up “a heavy-handed metaphor for the pernicious rise of consumerism.”  Though Waleson determined, “At 90 minutes, the piece feels long, and the music . . . is a nattering background,” she found that “the variety and deployment of Mr. Barritt’s deceptively simple drawings are astonishing” and “so well done that it is sometimes not entirely clear what is real and what is not.”  Calling 1927’s Golem a “sinister work of science fiction” in am New York, Matt Windman noted that it has “a plot that sort of resembles ‘Little Shop of Horrors.’”  Windman reported that the performance “meticulously combines five clown-like performers, booming narration, live music and film animation, leading to a wholly coordinated piece of theater that defies ordinary characterization, resembling a trippy art installation and an animated movie brought to life.”  “[T]old in a visual style,” the amNY reviewer wrote, it “recalls both the European avant-garde movements of the early 20th century and claymation cartoons meant for children.  It’s Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ meets ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse.’”

Christopher Isherwood, calling Golem “visually dazzling” and “mind-pinching” in the Times, labeled it “a fable that feels both contemporary and ageless, combining live performance and music with sophisticated stop-motion and traditional animation.”  Isherwood gave a great deal of credit “for its seamless ingenuity” to Barritt, “the creator of its kaleidoscopic film, design and animation.”  The Timesman characterized the setting as “fantastical” and said it was “as lively a presence as any of the performers onstage.”  Isherwood declared, “The integration of Mr. Barritt’s animation and the work of the cast is the show’s most singular and bewitching achievement.”  “For all its dark intimations,” the Times reviewer reported, Golem “remains playfully comic in tone and spirit.”  He concluded, “The moral of ‘Golem’ isn’t drawn in particularly subtle strokes.  But its tart critique of a modern world. . . has been imbued with such hallucinatory visual allure that your attention is held fast . . . .”  And he added a cautionary epilogue: “And after watching it your attitude toward your smartphone may require some readjusting.”

I don’t usually include out-of-town papers in my review survey, but in this case, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran the only mixed notice in Show-Score’s tally of reviews of the Lincoln Center Festival presentation of Golem, so I figured it’d be important to record it.  David Patrick Stearns (the paper’s music reviewer), giving a brief précis of the use of computer-generated animation in live theater and, especially, opera (1927 will bring its version of Magic Flute to Opera Philadelphia in the fall of 2017), characterized Golem as “told in the broadly satirical manner of The Simpsons.”  Stearns stated, “Beyond bringing [Golem] to life, the animation . . . was mainly of use for secondary matters, almost like incidental music, bolstering transitional passages and scene-setting, although it was so imposing that everything else . . . was secondary.”  The actors, he added, “were too often reduced to narrative automatons.”  (As you might expect from a true music guy, Stearns decided that the Magic Flute characters wouldn’t likely suffer the same fate because “Mozart’s music gives his stick-figure characters a warmth and humanity that cool, more impersonal digitally-crafted imagery can’t take away.”  It’d be interesting to see if he’s right, or if Stearns has to eat his own words next year.)

Show-Score didn’t include the Village Voice in its round-up, so Helen Shaw’s less-than-positive review was omitted from the ratings.  Describing 1927’s production style as “a hybrid form of avant-retro video-theater,” she called Golem “chilly,” the play a “projection-saturated fable,” and the sound-mix “muddy,” rendering “some lines inaudible.”  All of this “muted” the production’s message, Shaw affirmed.  “If you’ve never seen the troupe’s work, you’ll find it a genuine wonder, a gorgeous amalgam of image and wit,” she concluded, but lamented, “Unfortunately, even such aesthetic sophistication can wear badly.”  She complained that “the group’s delight in computer animation has hamstrung the show’s Luddite message.”  “[W]orst of all,” the Voice reviewer wrote in her final analysis, “writer-director Suzanne Andrade doesn't sustain her critique.”  In Time Out New York, David Cote opened his review by explaining:

To describe the acting in Golem as cartoonish is simply factual—though I have used the term slightingly before. It’s not just the jerky walking, the rubber-faced grimaces or the nasal vocal inflections. The performers are literally embedded within a giant animated projection in this wickedly ingenious satire on consumerism and conformism.

Cote added that “rarely do you see those varied elements absorbed and transformed in such dynamic fashion” as in 1927’s “ghoulishly effective allegory.”  “Yes,” remarked the man from TONY, “the Golem is the Internet, but the critique comes with so much quirk and weirdness, it has the dark enchantment of every good fable.”  He dubbed Barritt’s animation “brilliant” (“dazzling [to] the eye,” Cote wrote) and Andrade’s writing “witty, broad and fetchingly lyrical”; the “sheer technical achievement . . .,” Cote summed up, “is rather mind-blowing, and the frisky, adorable performers endow their two-dimensional costars with three-dimensional weight.”  In his final comment, Cote quipped, “It’s a rare show that measures success by how well its actors blend into the scenery.

In the sole cyber review I read, Jeremy Gerard called Golem “ingenious and ultimately quite moving” on the Huffington Post.  Combined with “a mesmerizing score,” Andrade and Barritt have “produced an eye- and ear-filling riff” on Meyrink’s novel.  The play, Gerard remarked, “reminded me in places of Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine (1923), on the one hand, and Spike Jonez’s Her, on the other.”  Then the HP review-writer presented his “quibble”: 1927’s Golem “is so charming . . . that the ontological tale gets pretty lost.  And so the general takeaway—technology bad, punk-rock good—seemed kinda banal.”  Still, Gerard concluded that “the show is a wonder, and here I am, still thinking about it.”

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