Manitoba·Review

Puppet play about Jewish baseball team swings for the fences but goes foul

With a genuinely unique story that opens the door for exploration of deep questions and often clever execution through puppetry, Winnipeg Jewish Theatre's premiere of The Golem's Mighty Swing has a lot going for it. But its structural flaws keep it stuck at first base.

Ambitious but flawed premiere for The Golem's Mighty Swing at Winnipeg Jewish Theatre

Toby Hughes, James Smith and Jesse Nerenberg manipulate puppets by Marcus Jamin in The Golem's Mighty Swing. Though the story and its staging are promising, the new play has structural flaws that haven't been worked out. (Keith Levit Photography)

As a new work, The Golem's Mighty Swing has a lot going for it.

The play is based on acclaimed source material — American artist James Sturm's 2001 graphic novel.

Like that source material, Marcus Jamin's stage adaptation has a genuinely unique story, which opens the door for exploration of deep questions.

And Winnipeg Jewish Theatre and Toronto's Outside the March give the adaptation a creative staging — it's a puppet play, drawing on Jamin's skills as a puppeteer.

All of that is probably why parts of this new play work so well, but unfortunately, too much of The Golem's Mighty Swing simply flies foul.

Its promising story follows the Stars of David, a fictional (though factually inspired) Jewish baseball team scraping by in the minor leagues in 1920s America, struggling to make enough with each game to keep travelling from town to town.

That's why an ugly offer that comes their way is too good to refuse.

Based on James Sturm's acclaimed graphic novel, The Golem's Mighty Swing is, in its tense climax, an effective exploration of bigotry, hate and the potential for violence that simmers beneath even the most genteel social scenarios — like baseball. The problem is in getting to that climax. (Keith Levit Photography)

Victor Paige (pupeteered and voiced by Katherine Cullen), a sleazy promoter, offers a sizeable sum if the team's star hitter, Henry (Ray Strachan) will play a game dressed up in costume as a golem — a man-made creature that is both protector and destroyer in Jewish folklore. Paige reasons the garish spectacle can draw a crowd, thanks to the popularity of the then-recent silent movie The Golem.

The team's long-suffering but principled manager, Noah (Toby Hughes), resists at first. But faced with harsh economic realities, he agrees to have Henry dress as the golem for a game in a small town where the team has never played — and where the anti-Semitism that's plagued the team reaches a boiling point.

The Golem's Mighty Swing is cracking theatre during this climactic baseball game.

There's fantastic tension in director Mitchell Cushman's staging of the game, enhanced by dramatic lighting by Nick Blais and the unsettling, atmospheric sound design of James Smith (who, along with Jesse Nerenberg, rounds out the five-person cast of puppeteers).

Marcus Jamin's intricately designed table-top puppets, in the hands of a talented cast (including Ray Strachan, pictured here) become surprisingly lifelike characters that we grow to care about — eventually. (Keith Levit Photography)

It's in this final scene that Mighty Swing is most effective at driving home its thoughtful and provocative exploration of bigotry, hate, otherness and the potential for violence that simmers beneath even the most genteel social scenarios — like baseball.

The problem is getting there.

The Golem's Mighty Swing is a new play, and it has deep structural flaws that haven't been worked out. Too much of its first half is devoted to a depiction of a low-stakes baseball game, presented in a painfully plodding play-by-play. It comes before we know anything much about the team, the characters — really, anything that would give the audience any emotional investment in the game.

It's a rocky start that the production can't fully recover from. 

While the play's staging is creative, it relies on constantly repositioning puppets and the wheeled carts on which they're manipulated, which becomes too jerky and drags down the production's momentum. (Keith Levit Photography)

Other scenes leading up to the play's climax feel overlong, in large part because of staging that works fitfully.

Jamin's intricately designed table-top puppets, in the hands of a talented cast, do become surprisingly lifelike characters that we grow to care about — eventually. 

But the staging, which relies on constantly repositioning puppets and the wheeled carts on which they're manipulated, is simply too jerky. The play's action often moves too slowly as scenes are set, and momentum drags over the production's 105 minutes (presented without intermission).

It's an ambitious new work that swings hard for a home run, but the audience might wander off before The Golem's Mighty Swing makes it to first base.

Winnipeg Jewish Theatre/Beyond the March's production of The Golem's Mighty Swing runs at the Berney Theatre at the Asper Jewish Community Campus until Nov. 23.

About the Author

Joff Schmidt

CBC theatre reviewer

Joff Schmidt is a copy editor for CBC Manitoba. Since 2005, he's also been CBC Manitoba's theatre critic on radio and online. He majored in theatre at the U of M, and performed in many university and Fringe festival productions along the way (ranging from terrible to pretty good, according to the reviews). Find him on Twitter @JoffSchmidt.

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