Jesse Garlick recently spoke to JewishBoston about bringing Rossel’s book to life on stage.
What’s so fascinating about presenting Chelm’s stories now?
The interesting thing about the project is that they are comedic; there is a lightness in these intensely dark moments that we can play with. These are the stories people are loving right now. The most important aspect is that these Jewish folk tales have been passed down from generation to generation for 400 years. It’s always a good time for these stories – they remind us that our identities as Jews go beyond the five books of the Torah. Our folk tales are more than the stories of Moses. These stories are amazing, but I love that Sholem Asch’s stories have been re-imagined for generations and generations.
You share these stories in an original way using puppets and masks. What is behind these artistic choices?
Although we tell Jewish folk tales, we wanted to bring other methods of folk storytelling. The goal is to take these methods and mix them up to see how they fit together. We will use shadow theatre, which comes from the Malaysian folk tradition. We use regular puppets, dating back to “Punch and Judy”, the 1000’s and early medieval morality plays from Europe and England. We use mask work, which goes back to the Greeks, and we take a more commedia bent, which brings the Italian commedia dell’arte bent to storytelling.
We wanted to tell Jewish stories in a way that allowed us to choose from different storytelling modalities from the cornucopia of theatre. We also wanted to keep the audience in suspense. Each of these stories will premiere each Thursday in February. Each play is new and exciting to the audience.
Can you say more about your use of puppetry based on Malay folk tales?
The puppet is one of the oldest theatrical traditions we know, even predating the Greeks. In Malaysia, China, Vietnam and Sri Lanka, there are ancient traditions where people tell stories and stories by taking cut-out papers, placing them on a sheet and lighting a fire behind them. It’s a very dynamic mode of storytelling. We use a piece of paper to cut out. We then bring in a small fire to backlight this piece of paper. We move the paper around while using a stick to move the puppet around and tell the unfolding events.
You will present four distinct Chelm stories through these different modalities. How did you choose a particular modality for each story?
Our goal was to keep things fresh while using forms we were familiar with. I have a lot of experience working with masks, shadow theater and puppetry. My co-adaptor, Dori Robinson, also has a lot of experience with masks. We also staged more traditional plays. But we wanted to use all these shapes that we know well during our professional career.
Our first piece is an origin story – how the town of Chelm came to be, and it uses shadow puppets. It is a grand and epic tale. We talk about God, we talk about angels and we talk about people being taken by their hats and dropped off in different villages. We didn’t have the budget to try to do all these things. But shadow theater can give this idea of scope and narrative. One of the reasons it was invented was to tell stories of gods, kings and armies. It gives us the opportunity to share those stories. So that’s what attracted me to using this mode for this story.
We felt the mask work in “How the Chelmites Stole the Moon” translated well for this story. I love the communal storytelling aspect of the latest piece we’re performing, “Winter of Discontent”. The play featured an exciting way to bring live actors into space. We also wanted to capture Chelm’s shared history by having the actors run through space, making it feel like presenting a play in one shot. These are some of the reasons why we presented these stories and decided to use these modes.
What strikes you the most in these stories?
One of the reasons these stories have survived so long is that they are stories where the narrators make fun of themselves. But they also survive; they use their comedy, humor and self-degradation to get ahead. And all of these stories, in the end, have a moral. These people may have gotten the answer wrong, and they may have stumbled along the way, but in the end they say, “Hey! What can you do? We will make the most of it.
Find more information and tickets here.