nytheatre.com review by Kimberly Wadsworth
April 14, 2006
In the program notes for The Amulet, New Worlds Theater Project’s artistic director Mark Altman admits that the play’s meaning is somewhat obscure. Although his notes are titled “for after the play,” they may read better as an honest advance warning.
Not that the writing has nothing for modern audiences to enjoy. The play, from a new translation of a 1906 Yiddish work by Russian playwright Peretz Hirshbein, is poetically rich. The story is simple—a blind ferryman (David Little) and his grown granddaughter (Hanna Cheek) are forced to flee their riverside home in the wake of a spring flood, and as they take shelter on shore, the girl rescues a mysterious stranger from the river (Daryl Lathon). He in turn rescues her from freezing to death, but enchants her so with tales of his home country across the river that after the flood she can think of nothing but joining him there someday.
Director Isaac Butler has chosen an intriguing approach to the production side as well, with a bare-bones set and lighting effects standing in for the storm and the riverbank. An onstage percussionist (Matt Temkin) plays throughout the show, his instrumentation standing in for the whistling wind and the rushing floodwaters. Two men sit along the edge of the stage throughout, serving as stagehands and extras; they are even on stage as the audience walks into the space, lighting candles and praying to themselves. (A health warning for some: part of the pre-show setting may involve the use of some sort of incense, as the room was very hazy when I walked in. [Editor's Note: Director Isaac Butler writes, "We use an Actors Equity-approved non-allergenic haze maker that is specifically designed to avoid health problems. There's no incense in the show."])
So there are lovely phrases in the play, and lovely images in the staging. But for a good chunk of the production, these two elements didn’t seem to fit together neatly. Little’s ferryman speaks in great circling loops of allegory, returning again and again to the same points in his speeches—and he indeed speaks in speeches, leaving his poor granddaughter with little to say for most of the first scene. Temkin’s percussion is definitely an intriguing element, but with a play this wordy, constant percussion might not have been the best idea—at times the actors were simply drowned out. Little especially was overtaken by the percussion at times, and some of the nuances of his speeches were lost, which made them sound even more repetitive.
Lathon stands out in his one scene as the Stranger—his character also repeats himself, but somehow he sounds emphatic and persuasive rather than redundant. The scene is something of a dance of seduction, though, so the circling and backstepping fit; even so, Lathon brings a delicate balance of innocence and ardor to his performance, and it’s not surprising that Cheek’s character responds to him.
I know that I’d find plenty of wonderful things in Hirshbein’s script if I were reading it on the page; the notes in the program speculate about several of the allegorical layers found in the work. I also know that I’d like to see some of these production elements in a play less bound by language. Pairing them just seems to add too many layers to the work, leaving them both somewhat out of reach of our understanding.