- The Washington Times - Friday, May 9, 2003

That a nebbish like Elliott Green could turn out not only to be a prince but a leader is truly a 21st century miracle. Elliott (Alek Friedman, a young Ray Bolger with the same wistfulness and rubbery grace) is a repressed typist at IBM in San Francisco. He exists for his coffee breaks (in a later scene, a good cup of joe turns out to be his Waterloo) and has far too much of his identity tied up in the laminated ID card he wears around his neck, yet Elliott insists on repeating the mantra “I like my job. I like my life” in the hopes that it will prove true.

Stranger things than the redemption of an office dweeb occur in Yehuda Hyman’s enchanting, mind- and gender-bending dance-play, “The Mad Dancers,” which marks the first collaboration between Theatre J and local choreographer Liz Lerman.

The play, co-directed by Miss Lerman and Nick Olcott, is a strange brew of heady storytelling and sinuous dancing that touches on ideas about faith, believing in the absurd, and how joy and lighthearted humor are right up there with cleanliness and godliness.

In order to enjoy “The Mad Dancers” you don’t have to necessarily be well-versed on the kabala, the body of Jewish teachings concerned with divine mystical experiences, or acquainted with Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the revered 17th century Hasid (“pious person”) leader who believed enlightenment came from storytelling and laughter — but it helps. Those who don’t know the Sefiroth (the 10 Emanations of God) from borscht, might be as lost as poor Elliott in the first act, which is dense with characters from both the past and present, in addition to an onslaught of Jewish symbolism. Luckily, the program contains a thorough glossary and a couple of explanatory essays and it is wise to get a little reading in before the play begins. Even with these “cheat sheets” to lean on, “The Mad Dancers” throws an awful lot of ideology and metaphoric dialogue at you in the first hour. It’s when the playwright relaxes in the second half that the play finds its hypnotic, circular rhythm.

The cast of actors and dancers pull off the astonishing feat of handling the physical demands of the play — their bird-wing gestures often convey more than words ever could — plus its intellectual nuances as well.

Mr. Hyman spent 10 years researching Rabbi Nachman’s unfinished tale “The Seven Beggars” and the scholarship shows. Wanting to be faithful to the work is admirable, but not when it gets in the way of a good yarn.

The feathery touch of Mr. Olcott, combined with Miss Lerman’s choregraphy (which emphasizes the narrative power of certain repetitive gestures and movements) keeps “The Mad Dancers” from getting mired in pedantry.

It’s a good thing too, since the play contains such a delectable tale, ironically staged on a set that looks like a golden oval serving platter. “The Mad Dancers” is dominated by the diminutive rebbe (Naomi Jacobson, unrecognizable and protean in a variety of wigs, facial hair sproutings, and costumes), who wishes not only to complete his final tale before dying, but to find the next leader of his people.

His devoted followers are nervous. How are they going to survive without the rebbe? Who will lead them? As usual, the rebbe answers with a story, but this time he is not only the teller, but the searcher.

The rebbe fast-forwards into the future a few centuries and alights on Elliot. In a series of fast, funny and touching scenes, the rebbe shape-shifts into numerous characters who visit Elliott at his desk and literally joy-buzzes him with enlightenment. They all utter the same words: “You should be exactly as I am.” What does this mean? Elliott is snapped out of his complacency in his yearning to find out, a journey that takes him way beyond the IBM building to the cryptic Hotel Pomegranate (where you can check out any time you like, just so long as you don’t answer the door), through several thousand years of Jewish history, and into the hollows of his own soul.

The frail-seeming, surprisingly resilient rebbe keeps popping up to offer misty snippets of wisdom, as does a dapper old gentleman (Bill Hamlin, coming off like an oily vaudeville showman) who appears to be some sort of evil death figure.

The rebbe is determined to have his tale told, and as the heaviness of a long life accretes around him the rebbe draws upon the weapons that have served him so well: joy and lightness. His philosophy is that when the going gets tough, the tough get kvelling.

Elliott, the unlikely prince, is led back to his faith and a purpose born out of a life-altering dream. The rebbe and Elliott are similar in a way, two people who look as if they could be blown sideways any minute, but who show great spiritual reserves, empathy and yearning.

These are fine qualities for every human to possess, whether they are rebbe or regular guy. In this way, “The Mad Dancers” shows that you don’t have to be a prima ballerina to participate in the sweet dance of life.

***

WHAT: “The Mad Dancers” by Yehuda Hyman

WHERE: Theater J, 1529 Q St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays. Through June 1.

TICKETS: $21 to $34

PHONE: 800/494-TIXS

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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