Theater-goers escaping New York winter can find some solace in Miami theater in The Golem of Havana.
by Myra Chanin
I have never been enamored with spending the winter in balmy Boca. Why? Because there ain’t a lot of cultural activities there other than sneaking into three second-rate multiplex potboilers for the price of a single senior citizen ticket. This year, an older but wiser me decided to take a chance and wisely left my beloved Manhattan two days before the Mother of All Blizzards! Perfect timing for me, though perhaps not for the friends and acquaintances who unexpectedly discovered me on their thresholds with enough luggage to last considerably longer than the three days it takes a dead fish or a guest to stink; nor with enough time for them to unearth their hidden manuals on in-hospitality.
The day after my arrival I was zapping early-bird scraps when my iPhone pinged with a Yoo-hoo! from one of the theater sites offering a discount for The Golem of Havana, a new original musical—the first production of Miami New Drama, a production company co-founded by Moises Kaufman, the lauded Pulitzer/Tony award-winning director of I Am My Own Wife, and the playwright of Gross Indecency, The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project; along with Michel Hausmann, a Venezuelan-born playwright/director with impressive international credits. Hausmann had written, and was directing his variation of a 16th century myth about the Golem—a monster created by the Chief Rabbi of Prague to protect Jews, but which ended up harming everyone (including them), forcing the Rabbi deactivate it. It sounded worth seeing, even though getting to Miami involved maneuvering a rental car down Interstates filled with nonagenarian drivers inching toward early-bird dinners. If The Golem of Havana proved less than magical, we’d be a stone crab’s claw away from the equally nonagenarian Joe’s Stone Crab, one of my favorite restaurants. So, it was worth the venture, I ventured.
The first bars of the opening Hasidic melody convinced me that my ears were in the hands of a brilliant composer. And indeed it was Salomon Lerner, who produced memorable Klezmer and Cubano melodies with Len Schiff’s clever lyrics adding additional pizzazz. Then, a strikingly pretty young girl, narrator Rebecca Frankel (Liba Vaynberg) uttered the first sentence of Hausmann’s magnificent manuscript: “When you can’t take anything with you, you take along your stories,” a stunning, unforgettable, chilling eternal truth. Then she began singing the Golem’s story, aided by illuminated cartoon shadow puppets, until the scene switched to pre-Castro Havana, and the entire cast danced through the title song exactly as choreographer Ray Sullivan meant them to do.
The Golem of Havana encircles the destiny of a Holocaust-surviving Hungarian-Jewish family living in Batista’s Havana on the brink of the Cuban Revolution. They must face their ghosts and choose between protecting their maid’s rebel son and guarding their fragile prosperity. The plot is a braid of interwoven strands of the past and present of three families, two related by blood (The Jewish Frankels and the Cuban Rondons), and the political band fused by the ambition and greed of Cuban President Batista and his henchmen.
The Frankels are economically and emotionally impoverished Holocaust survivors. The father, Pinchas (Allen Lewis Rickman) is as fine a tailor as his father was but lacks the pesos for a down payment on a shop, which would assure him of financial recognition for his skills. His wife, Yutka (Yelena Shmulenson) is a dour woman plagued with guilt over a decision that led to her sister Olga’s death, an event that is replayed in daughter Rebecca’s nightmares and fuels her need for a magical protector.
The Frankels’ maid Maria Rondon (Rheaume Crenshaw) is the descendant of slaves, widowed when her husband, mistaken for a rebel, was murdered by Batista’s thugs. She prays to a African Goddess for protection for her son Teo (Ronald Alexander Peet) a Castro follower.
The change agent for both families is Batista’s adviser Arturo Perez (Chaz Mena) actually a charismatic, manipulative thug who brings fortune and evil into all their lives.
How do all these threads get resolved? Brilliantly. The script is extraordinary. The characters are real and never maudlin. Set designer Edwin Erminy suggests late 1950s Havana with no props but extra-long bamboo blinds. Lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger creates a longed-for rainstorm in gray-blue tints. Costume designer Christopher Vergara establishes place, time and character with white tropical suits and floral dresses. Special kudos to New York’s National Yiddish Theater and Coen Brother favorites, Allen Lewis Rickman and his stage (and actual) wife Yelena Shmulenson; the exquisitely voiced Rheaume Crenshaw and her stage son Ronald Alexander Peet, as well as Felipe Gorostiza and Chaz Mena as the only dictator and henchman I’ve ever found attractive.
Believe me, The Golem of Havana will supply sustenance to your spirit that’s as delicious as anything you’ll find at Joe’s Stone Crabs.
The Golem of Havana. Through February 7 at The Colony Theater (Lincoln Road Mall, 1040 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach, Florida). For more information: (305) 674-1040 or go to www.thegolemofhavana.com
photos by @yairrosemberg