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  WINDY CITY TIMES

THEATER The Speaking Head and Other Scary Jewish Stories
by Rick Reed
2003-11-12

This article shared 3259 times since Wed Nov 12, 2003
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Photo Rachel Lewis and Ron Subeck in The Speaking Head and Other Scary Jewish Stories at Chicago Jewish Theatre.

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Retold by: Howard Schwartz; Adapted by: Stuart Gordon

At: Chicago Jewish Theatre, 5123 N. Clark

Phone: ( 773 ) 728-0599; $25

Runs through: Dec. 14

The problem with adapting stories for the stage is their intrinsic literary worth. They were originally conceived to appear on a page ( or as told by a single person ) , so that the intellectual and emotional connection we make with character, setting, and plot are on an intimate level. It's storyteller ( or writer ) and listener ( or reader ) ; it's a one-on-one thing. Plays are written with the dramatic in mind, and it's a more visual medium.

Chicago Jewish Theatre, a new offshoot of Red Hen Productions, has an ambitious mission here: to bring to life six Jewish tales of the supernatural, gathered from numerous sources ranging from the ancient Middle East to 12th century Germany, and later Eastern European oral traditions.

Director Susan Stone, somewhat of an expert as a local storyteller and teacher, mans this helm with uncertainty and a lack of appreciation for what these stories could be. Stone has a difficult enough task ahead of her, because these stories are not adapted with the dramatic in mind. The stories are told, rather than dramatized, even though we have an eager ensemble giving their all to bring a multitude of characters to life, and sets and costumes that fit the period. There's a lot of exposition here and not enough real life.

The stories themselves are interesting. On the page, or perhaps told simply by one person in a darkened room they could work, because the connection to the imagination is actually made stronger than having them spelled out for us as they are here. There are tales of demons living in bodies of water, a sorcerer who gets his just desserts for using his magic to commit rape, werewolves, and more. The titular story is probably the most fully realized of the lot, a story about a young Jewish boy who is kidnapped from his family by the duplicitous means employed by a demon. The boy ends up trapped in a castle full of demons and the things he sees and hears are controlled by the spells they cast. His only hope is a disembodied head he encounters who helps him escape, not wanting to see him meet the same fate. But the adaptation of this story underlines what's wrong with this entire outing. For one, this story, as well as all the rest, is not scary. That's because Stone has chosen to aim low for the funny bone and ignore the goose-bump-inducing context. The demons in the castle, for example, which could be very horrifying, are portrayed as stiff-armed zombies, like something out of Night of the Living Dead. The speaking head says awful corny things like, 'I'm feeling lightheaded.' What also is lacking here is thespian finesse. It seemed that Stone let her actors run riot, hamming it up and chewing up the scenery in every piece. While there is an attempt at a kind of style here, it needs a lighter touch.

But what really makes this outing so leaden is the fact that the stories are told, rather than shown. Going halfway with the tales leaves us with far less than if we had just read them ourselves. Either dramatize them fully, or leave them for the one-on-one connection I mentioned above. This half measure is a failure of the imagination on both the theater's fault and our own.


This article shared 3259 times since Wed Nov 12, 2003
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