Daily Bread, Humble Pie

Theatre de la Jeune Lune's The Golem shapes a feast from clay; Guthrie Lab's Sweeney Todd makes mincemeat of paupers

Someone once asked the veteran war photographer Donald McCullin why his images were so dark. McCullin, who had by then seen so many dead bodies that they haunted his dreams, replied, "If I didn't make them so dark, you wouldn't know where the light was." The same might be said of The Golem, Theatre de la Jeune Lune's lyrical riff on an old Jewish fable about a magical creature made of clay. The darkness here is the half-lit gloom of a 1930s European ghetto, a dank netherworld where old newspapers flutter like sad little ghosts and where candles only sporadically illuminate exposed brick walls. The muted chiaroscuro is merely a backdrop, however, for Jeune Lune's raw and radiant gem of a play. Distilling myth, history, and humor into a free-flowing mélange of images, The Golem proves a rare creature indeed--a work of art that, like the best of McCullin's images, speaks most eloquently in moments of shadow and silence.

As The Golem begins, a shabbily dressed tramp played by Luverne Seifert lopes quietly in from the wings. He pounds a cloud of dust from his threadbare jacket and begins plucking pebbles from his shoes. The pebbles become stones and, in no time, Seifert is reaching down his pants to retrieve a brick. We watch his vaudeville routine, barely noticing the grim crowd that has materialized in the darkness behind him. These are the archetypal figurants who populate the play's richly imagined cosmos: the Fool (Vincent Gracieux), the Whore (Sarah Agnew), the Puppeteer (Michael Sommers), the Poet (Rebecca Myers), the Rabbi (Steven Epp), and the Rabbi's Daughter (Catherine Johnson). Their world is the public square of the ghetto, a cavernous courtyard delineated by Dominique Serrand's spare lighting scheme and furnished only with a rusty water pump. It appears a dreary place, and its denizens a dreary lot.

A little off the top: Demon barber Sweeney Todd (Dan Sharkey) cuts to the quick
A little off the top: Demon barber Sweeney Todd (Dan Sharkey) cuts to the quick

As the play unfolds, however, it becomes apparent that there is more here than wretched poverty and an overabundance of pebbles. The ghetto dwellers gather first around the water pump to share a communal meal of bread brought forth from the stones. Later the pump becomes a font for the Whore and the Fool, who take turns washing each other in the spray. There is, too, a Hebrew lesson from the Rabbi, which turns into a delightful commedia-ballet; a marionette show from the Puppeteer, which glosses the golem myth in the unadorned language of allegory; and a Shabbat, which ends with the participants eating pages from the Torah. Even in this place, where despair is so omnipresent that it seems to hang in the air, the faithful find strength in the simplest of rituals: cleansing the feet of lepers, sharing manna from heaven, and savoring God's word.

It is not surprising that The Golem should be a feast for the eyes. Jeune Lune's indulgent visual style, honed to an art in so many past productions, is based on mise-en-scène novelty. Yet, where some recent company-created works have erred on the side of visual excess, The Golem has an elegant, restrained pacing that gives it the added gloss of a myth transplanted to the stage. Director Robert Rosen takes us into the play's world so slowly, and lets its inhabitants reveal themselves with such gentle simplicity, that the final effect is like watching a series of old photographs flicker in front of our eyes. It is at once beautiful and hypnotizing.

Dreams are a faithful reflection of our waking world, but they speak in the language of metaphor and image, and do not divulge their secrets easily. Even in its most literal moments, The Golem aspires to this loosely associative narrative logic of dreaming. In the play's penultimate scene, the Rabbi's Daughter wishes for a pair of shoes. Vincent Gracieux, playing the serene clown to near perfection, marches across the stage trailing a little flock of shoes on a leash. The Whore opens an umbrella and shoes shower out. Suddenly, there are shoes everywhere, pouring from suitcases and hat boxes, bouncing across the stage, cascading from the sky. Then the actors disappear and we are left to ponder their work: a mound of old shoes and a pile of battered suitcases--a silent monument to exodus and exile. The image remains to thrill and haunt us long after the dream has ended.

 

In contrast to the elegiac tone of The Golem, the Guthrie Lab's lurid and thoroughly enjoyable production of Sweeney Todd is a symphony of destruction. Blood is spattered, hapless victims are processed into meat pies, and songs are sung. The ghetto here is the industrial wasteland of nineteenth-century London, imagined by director John Miller-Stephany, set designer Frank Hallinan Flood, and sound designer Scott Edwards as a stark, gray concourse where ghoulish paupers and prostitutes stumble about in the fog and where unseen machinery grinds away behind the walls. These are the rusty innards of the Industrial Age, and the poor inhabitants are fuel for the machine--literally, in this case.

The Dickensian milieu reflects the morbid atmosphere of Stephen Sondheim's Gothic nightmare of a musical. After glossing the urban mythology surrounding a particularly sensational crime spree, Sweeney Todd introduces us to a barber named Sweeney (Dan Sharkey), recently returned from an extended holiday in Botany Bay to seek revenge on those who drove his beautiful wife to commit suicide. Upon arrival in London, he meets Mrs. Lovett (Mimi Wyche), proprietress of the bistro serving "the worst pies in London." Sweeney learns that his daughter Johanna (Sara Schmidt) is in the care of the righteous old bastard Judge Turpin (Merle Fristad). In short order Sweeney has picked up his trade once again (although he has developed the troubling habit of taking a bit too much off the top of most of his customers). Behind every good serial killer, at least in this brand of theater, there is a good woman to help him hide the evidence. Mrs. Lovett, who possesses a twisted and darkly comic entrepreneurial streak, begins serving a Victorian precursor of Soylent Green to her unwitting customers.

Sweeney Todd is a musical that perhaps only Stephen Sondheim could pull off. Sonically complex and unusually literate, Sondheim's music and lyrics manage to be simultaneously horrific and deeply, darkly comic. It is easy to laugh at Mrs. Lovett's cold capitalist calculus, but it is also disturbing to watch her bustle about her gory business with such charming élan. Ms. Wyche is flawless indeed, and provides a perfect foil for Mr. Sharkey as the morosely determined Sweeney. If there is one problem with the play's narrative, it is the perfunctory love story between Johanna and a dashing seaman named Anthony Hope (Rich Affannato). Despite fine singing by both Mr. Affannato and Ms. Schmidt, once people start devouring people, the romantic subplot naturally begins to seem a bit extraneous.

Indeed, it would seem that Sweeney Todd is less a romance or Dickensian ghost story than a smart satire of the insane appetites of capitalism. The rich eat, the poor get eaten, and the machine digests everyone in the end. By the macabre climax of the Lab's production, the cycle has come full circle: The righteous Sweeney has had his revenge, accidentally killed his wife (who, it turns out, hadn't actually offed herself), and baked poor Mrs. Lovett in her beloved pie oven. The daisy chain of depravity continues as the simple-minded shopboy Tobias (Jon Whittier) takes the razor to his master. The hungry apparatus is sated, the body count is staggering, and we leave the theater avowed vegetarians.

 

The Golem runs through June 27 at Theatre de la Jeune Lune; (612) 333-6200.Sweeney Todd runs through June 27 at the Guthrie Lab; (612) 377-2224.

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