By Joshua Rosenblum, ZEALnyc Contributing Writer, July 28, 2016
Beware! Technology is seductive but dangerous, warns Lincoln Center Festival's Golem, a dazzling, seamless synthesis of live performance, animation, music and theater that is difficult to describe, but amazing to behold. Certainly Golem is not the first work of art to take on this perennially relevant theme, but it is probably the only one to depict said technology as a benign-looking, vaguely human-like figure made of clay. In Jewish folklore, a golem is a lump of inanimate matter brought magically to life, intended to mindlessly obey its master. As depicted by 1927, the innovative London-based performance company behind this ingenious theater piece, the Golem looks something like a cross between the alien at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Gumby, except more massive and sturdy, and possessed of a dangling male appendage. Director/writer Suzanne Andrade and animator/designer Paul Barritt, the visionaries behind 1927, used Austrian writer's Gustav Meyrink's early twentieth-century serial novel Der Golem as a springboard for this work, but it's safe to say Meyrink never imagined anything like this.
Our protagonist, Robert Robertson, who seems about as interesting as his name, purchases a Golem from an enterprising friend. At first, the Golem is merely an obedient servant, as intended--it does Robert's tedious coding job at Binary Backup, so he doesn't have to. Inevitably, however, the Golem begins to encroach on Robert's life, learning to speak and developing autonomy. "Who controls Golem while Robert's asleep?" asks his sister meekly. Robert's family gamely tries to pretend there's nothing out of the ordinary about the Golem's naked, clay-colored presence, but all is not well. Soon the Golem is telling them where to shop, what to buy, and expressing its own preferences in all matters. When the Golem short circuits and its head morphs through a blindingly rapid (and hilarious) series of transformations, Golem version two, a decidedly more aggressive model, dutifully shows up, goading Robert into wardrobe transformation and workplace competitiveness. The inevitable Golem version three is implanted directly into one's brain, as a blazing advertisement excitedly promises us. The metaphor is unmistakable, in an era wherein dependence on our handheld devices are long since a foregone conclusion. The look, design, and sound of the show, however, are more like that of a silent movie, so the whole thing has an intriguingly timeless feel, both classic and modern.
Technically speaking, the integration of the live actors and animation is astonishing. The most memorable recurring image is that of Robert (the gifted actress and physical comedian Shamira Turner) sauntering casually through the streets of his drab hometown, his claymation Golem in tow. Turner, however, is mime-walking in place while the animated scenery moves amiably by. (There are throwaway gags in the storefront names, such as Cod is Dead Fish 'N Chips, and Helen Back's Osteopath.) Sometimes Robert and Golem run pell-mell, or slide down precipitously inclined sidewalks. The whole thing--music, live performance, animation, lights--clearly requires military-style precision. A gag involving an animated coffee pot pouring splatteringly into Robert's wide-open mouth wouldn't have worked if Turner's positioning had been off by even an inch or two. Also memorable is a climactic, eye-popping sequence in which Robert's sister Annie (the highly amusing Esme Appleton) is relentlessly chased, lifted up into the air, and seemingly eaten by a gigantic Golem.
The entire ninety-minute show has musical underscoring. Much of it is performed live, by composer Lillian Henley at a keyboard and percussionist Will Close at a drum kit, in costume on opposite sides of the stage. It would be easy to miss the fact that Henley and Close, who seemingly play the entire time, are actually slipping unobtrusively away from their instruments and doubling as cast members. At the curtain call, it's shocking to realize that the entire cast and band consist of only five people. (When Henley and Close join the stage action, we are presumably hearing recorded music.) Henley's fetching silent movie-style score zips swingingly along, with a signature bop in a sort of fractured A minor as Robert and Golem traverse the streets. At other times it's melancholy and Satie-esque, and it effectively illustrates the encroaching technological menace with mechanistic rock. There's no actual singing, but a few song-like numbers emerge, with the lyrics spoken in rhythm. The funniest of these occurs when the newly successful Robert, egged on by the increasingly malevolent Golem Two, decides to ditch his bland girlfriend ("Joy is a frumpy 35-year-old who wants to trick you into having babies!") and participates in a sort of speed-dating via a Courting Contraption. Two female competitors (Appleton and the versatile Rose Robinson) vie for Robert's attention, spouting patter-style lyrics touting their own virtues while a succession of different cartoon bodies flash across them from the neck down. (Robert chooses both of them.) We also hear the clangorous caterwauling of Robert and Annie's would-be punk band "Annie and the Underdogs," of which we witness a few hapless rehearsals.
The droll, slightly hangdog acting stylizations of the gifted cast and the overall cheerfully ghoulish tone remind one by turns of Edward Gorey, Roz Chast, Tim Burton, and Terry Gilliam. But various fun-to-spot influences notwithstanding, Director/writer Andrade and animator/designer Barritt are onto something genuinely original, and it would be well worth catching the ceaselessly absorbing Golem before it closes on Sunday.
Golem. Presented by the Lincoln Center Festival July 26-31 at John Jay College's Gerald W. Lynch Theater. Created by 1927; director/writer Suzanne Andrade; film, animation & design by Paul Barritt; music Lillian Henley; associate director & design by Esme Appleton; sound design by Laurence Owen; costume design by Sarah Munro; dramaturgy by Ben Francombe; animation associate, Derek Andrade; projection screen design by James Lewis; production manager, Helen Mugridge; sound technician, Chris Prosho; Producer Jo Crowley. Cast: Esme Appleton, Lillian Henley, Rose Robinson, Shamira Turner, Will Close; voice of Golem: Ben Whitehead; additional voice over: Suzanne Andrade
Joshua Rosenblum is a Contributing Writer for ZEALnyc and writes on classical music performances, as well as theatrical events.
Want to read about other performances at the Lincoln Center Festival? Read: 'Merchant of Venice' packs a punch at Lincoln Center Festival
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