Published in KPBS On Air Magazine April 2001

In Hebrew, it means ‘traditional lore.’ Kabbalah is Jewish mysticism. In the mystical interpretation of the Scriptures, every word, letter, number and even accent contains mysteries.

According to tradition, you have to be 40 years old before you can begin to study Kabbalah, and you need to have mastered the Torah (the Written Law, or Five Books of Moses) and the Talmud (the Oral Law, with rabbinical commentaries). Madonna and other faddish followers probably haven’t done all the required legwork. San Diego Repertory Theatre associate artistic director Todd Salovey has, and he still doesn’t feel ready for Kabbalah. (“It’s extraordinarily powerful and beautiful,” he says. “In some ways dangerous”). But he’s very ready to direct The Mad Dancers, a world premiere “mystical comedy with ecstatic dance” (at the San Diego Rep, through April 22).

“I was incredibly impressed by how he could express Jewish spirituality in movement,” Salovey says of the playwright, Yehuda Hyman, who choreographed Salovey’s magnificent production of The Dybbuk in 1993.  

In 1994, the first year of the San Diego Jewish Arts Festival which Salovey co-directs, Hyman performed a one-man show he’d written, inspired by a spiritual experience he had in the ancient, sacred Israeli town of Safed, and adapted from “The 7 Beggars,” a story by the controversial 19th century Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, great grandson of the The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chassidism.

After numerous drafts, revisions, workshop productions and major underwriting from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays, the piece is, according to Salovey, “the most significant new Jewish play of the last twenty years.”

“It takes some powerful mystical ideas and very successfully theatricalizes them,” he says. “And in doing so, it connects audiences universally with the fire and light of Jewish mysticism. It encompasses the folklore and music of the Jewish communities of Ethiopia, Yemen, Spain, Eastern Europe and India. So it gives an extremely broad expression of what Jewish life is like, in the context of Jewish world beat music. Many scenes culminate in an expressive emotional dance that comes from each of those diverse cultures.

“The play asks Big Questions, like ‘How was the world made?’ and ‘What is the purpose of life?’ But the heart of it is ‘How do you find joy?” The story is very contemporary. It takes someone who’s extremely special, but through a demeaning, impersonal corporate job, has lost any sense of who he can be. He meets these different mystical characters who awaken in him his potential for joy and fulfillment.”

The central character is Elliott, a Y2K IBM Bay Area word processor (which was the very job playwright Hyman had when he created the piece).

In the play, Salovey explains, Elliott is likened to a kiwi: “small, plain and fuzzy on the outside. But inside is this rich, luscious green fruit. Elliot’s an Everyman. Like many of us, there’s a fissure between his internal and external lives. When the furry brown skin is peeled away, what’s found underneath is the garden, and the ability to be in, to live in, the garden.”

Part of Elliott’s spiritual path is ignoring the enticements of The Old Gentleman.

“In Hebrew,” says Salovey, “this is what we call the ‘Evil Inclination,’ the force that, when you’re on the verge of joy and bliss, will always attract you to the other side, make whatever you don’t need seem more delicious than what will really satisfy you.”

A graduate of the theater programs at Stanford and UCSD, Salovey, who also teaches at UCSD, typically chooses to direct plays (The Dybbuk, The Illusion, Death of a Salesman, Three Hotels) with a magical or spiritual core.

“To me,” he explains, “theater is always about awakening, taking myself, the actors and the audience on a trip in which what we find is a surprise. My mantra as a theater artist is: The surface is not what’s real. The spirituality, the poetry beneath the surface is what’s interesting to me. And my work is fueled by artists whose work is exciting to me. As [acclaimed director] Anne Bogart puts it, ‘I surround myself with people I can jump with.'”

So Hyman, the playwright/choreographer, is also in the cast (“you’ll know immediately why he’s playing Elliot; he is the kiwi”) and Giulio Perrone is designing another Salovey set. Playing the Rebbe, as well as six other characters (including a 90 year-old blind Eastern European, a Yemenite stutterer, an Ethiopian hunchback) is John Campion, who, according to Salovey, “finds the heart and soul, taps into something universal, and magically brings them all to life”. All told, the cast of 7 plays 18 roles. An original score (for four musicians) was composed by San Francisco fiddler Daniel Hoffman.

Like the Kabbalah itself, Salovey sees this production as a journey. “More than anything I’ve ever done,” he concedes, “I think this is the first step on a longer path”– one which he hopes will lead to New York.

©2001 Patté Productions Inc.