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Vol. LXII, No. 10
 
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
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Music/Theater

VERSATILE PERFORMER: Yehuda Hyman, shown here, portrays one of many characters in the spiritual journey he provides for the audience in his performance at the Berlind Theatre.

McCarter IN-Festival‘s “The Mad 7” Takes a Spiritual Journey; Solo Performance Piece Features Dance, Religion and Mysticism

Donald Gilpin

You should be exactly as I am,” says each of the physically disabled, culturally diverse storytellers who lead Elliott Green on his mystical quest in The Mad 7, currently playing in The Room at the Berlind Theatre as the featured production of McCarter’s second annual IN-Festival. Handicapped in different ways — sightless, hearing impaired, speech-impaired, twisted-necked, hunchbacked, handless, footless — each of the tellers emphasizes the unimportance of the physical in a world where mind, imagination and spirit rule.

Each of their stories, at least on the surface, is a simple tale. Elliott seems to be a simple man, an office drone, apparently settled contentedly in his mundane life. “I like my job. I like my life. I’m a very happy person,” he repeats. Bald, middle-aged, slightly overweight, casually dressed, Elliott looks like the man next door, or the worker in the next cubicle.

Yehuda Hyman, writer and choreographer of this performance piece, is also the only actor. The setting, a rectangular blue room with only a table/desk and office chair, partakes of a similar minimalism and mundane familiarity.

But on this foundation of simplicity, Mr. Hyman, in collaboration with a first-rate production team, takes an extravagant journey, creating multiple worlds of mystery and intrigue. With minimal props and costuming, he convincingly transforms himself into the timid and reluctant Elliott, the seven storytelling beggars and other figures who impinge on Elliott’s life. Mr. Hyman artfully plays different figures at one time, frequently in verbal or physical conflict with each other.

“The Mad 7” will play on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. March 7-9. Call 609-258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org for reservations and further information.

Mr. Hyman’s high-energy performance is a dramatic tour de force, but no less impressive are the contributions of the talented production team. Under the direction of McCarter Producing Director Mara Isaacs, sound (Karin Graybash), video (Seth Mellman), lighting (Mary Louise Geiger), set (Narelle Sissons) and costume designs (Kristin Fiebig) come together to create vivid, rapidly-changing environments and rich worlds within worlds.

The whole two-hour production, however, ultimately adds up to less than the sum of its parts. The mystical, religious, and spiritual threads do not always weave together coherently. What exactly is Elliott searching for? What is the purpose of all these struggles? Is there an overriding moral to be derived from this quest and these conundrums? Despite the obvious importance of Elliott’s experience, neither he nor the audience can figure out where he is going or wants to go, and the dramatic tension is diminished accordingly; though the parts themselves constitute a glorious array of intriguing philosophical ideas and human situations, superb character acting and brilliantly creative staging.

Inspired by the two hundred-year-old tale “The Seven Beggars” by the mystic Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, The Mad 7 begins quietly, as Elliott sits at his desk in his office on Market Street in San Francisco. In this setting, he is visited by the seven beggars, who tell their stories and take him on his journey, despite his resistance. “I can’t do this. I’m a modern person.”

Again and again, Elliott must overcome his insecurities and neuroses to participate in this “sort of magic carpet ride of different cultures and worlds.” He encounters Jewish figures of the Diaspora, outspoken, vibrant characters from many different countries, languages and cultures — all enacted by Mr. Hyman himself.

From his office desk in “The Real World,” Elliott’s travels take a wild trajectory. He is repeatedly tempted towards cynicism and self-destruction by The Evil One, the menacing video image of Elliott himself dressed in a business suit projected periodically on the back wall. A hilarious scene spirals into horror in a Spanish café, where Elliott learns to cook a chicken. Elliott visits a beautiful and heavily symbolic garden, which he must leave, though he can take part of it with him in his suitcase.

He encounters a symbolic tree, struggles through a tunnel, and participates in a ride in a helicopter that, until the passenger provides some humorous material to lighten the atmosphere, can only plummet downwards. All this action is staged minimally, with lighting, sound, and clever reliance on the audience’s imagination.

Punctuated with humor and enriched with evocative music and dance, Elliott’s journey is intriguing and mostly engaging. The stories have the appeal of much-loved fairy tales, and each resonates with deeper meaning, symbol, and allusion.

With the black hat, coat, and dangling forelocks of the Hasid and a variety of colorful shawls, Mr. Hyman transforms himself into a full complement of different characters. As a stuttering Yemenite he urges Elliott to ”listen with your heart,” and Elliott realizes that he must catch acts of kindness in his hat and solicit names of kind persons from the audience so that those names can be taken to the roof top to be woven into a song of peace and good will. “May your words always create sparks of kindness.”

As Mr. Hyman reminds us in his program note, “Rabbi Nachman himself always said, ‘I’m going to tell you a little story.’ He made it a point NOT to say, ‘I’m going to tell you the secrets of the universe; you’re going to have a great mystical awakening!’ No, I’m just telling you a little story.” Mr. Hyman and his McCarter production team tell, with dazzling skill and inventiveness, the story of Elliott Green and the stories of the seven beggars. If you don’t learn the secrets of the universe or experience a dramatic epiphany or even figure out where this journey is heading, at least you can sit back and give yourself over to the intellectual, emotional, spiritual and theatrical pleasures of the ride.

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