The Rabbi, the Drone, and the Wardrobe

A time-traveling fantasy steps into and out of the closet

When The Mad Dancers, Yehuda Hyman's fantasy drama, opens, a 19th-century visionary Hassidic rebbe is ailing and has no son to whom he can impart his wisdom. No problem, though, for the resourceful sage (Sally Wingert, in a good deal of costume) looks through the mists of time and sees an unlikely prince who will find a mate and set things right. Oddly enough, the prince comes in the form of a present-day office drone. It sounds improbable, and it is, and what follows is even more ambitious, wildly metaphoric, and generally outlandish.

Elliott (Brian Sostek), the word processor in question, sits at his desk in San Francisco insisting to himself that he enjoys his life and work, while the rebbe and his retinue look on in horror at a modern white-collar purgatory the likes of which they never imagined. Sostek plays the role with beleaguered charm, and his interactions with prissy boss Brenda (Aditi Kapil, spot-on in playing four roles throughout the night) suggest we've sat down to a contemporary comedy.

But then Elliott obeys an impulse to head north, where he ends up in a strange room in a strange hotel, and obeys a summons to step into the wardrobe. This piece of furniture turns out to be more rabbit hole than armoire, and soon enough Elliott is on a metaphysical adventure through seven encounters that serve as seven metaphorical chambers, at the end of which is his salvation and the realization of the rebbe's vision.

Rough day at the office: An average office worker (Brian Sostek, center) happens into a fantastic voyage through the Diaspora in 'The Mad Dancers'
Ann Marsden
Rough day at the office: An average office worker (Brian Sostek, center) happens into a fantastic voyage through the Diaspora in 'The Mad Dancers'

John Clark Donahue's dark set nicely functions for all the real and imaginary locales the script requires, with nice surrealist touches like windows opening to abstract images and a tunnel that not-so-subtly signals rebirth. By about midway through, Sostek's put-upon regular guy has begun to transform into something more layered, and Elliott is confronted by a series of odd strangers who all utter the gnomic line: "You should be exactly as I am." Elliott gradually gets the point--that it's all about authenticity, and soul, and living one's life beyond the plastic fantastic and finding true love. Attempting to thwart him along the path is a series of malicious tempters played by Stephen Yoakam, clearly having a blast, especially while playing a waiter who gives Elliott a gleefully detailed description of the full-body massage the cook applies to chickens before the slaughter.

Each of Elliott's seven strangers, and the way-out trips they embody, serves to represent an element of the Diaspora. And here Hyman's scenario ups the ambiguity quotient. After a near-death in Jerusalem, a wounded and damaged Elliott lets love in and finds happiness--with another man (his "princess," played with mute yearning for much of the night by Sasha Andreev). It turns out the kindly old rebbe was way ahead of his time in his approval of same-sex unions. I wondered whether Hyman was stretching things too far here, but the nature of Elliott's earlier denials of love and life--and Sostek's facility in portraying them--make the further-afield aspects of the story much easier to take.

Ultimately it's the kind of work that asks much of the cast and the audience alike. Casting Wingert as the rebbe is a nice touch, and she tackles the role (as well as three others) with credibility laced through with crucial humor. And that's the key. Director Stan Wojewodski Jr.'s cast might be holding on for dear life at times, as the play flits from California to Jerusalem to the primeval Garden while slaloming between light farce and Deep Truths, but they invest the material with heart, and they both grasp the script's intellectual obscurities and hang on to its jokes. The ending is plausibly sweet, and Sostek comes out as the kind of performer audiences like to root for. His journey might not entirely add up (unless one is adept at fifth-dimensional mathematics), but the meanings offered here are of the elusive variety, making a decent case that life might indeed be just a dream.

 
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