Set in the 1950’s on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel Meshugah (a Yiddish word meaning ‘crazy’) is a comically-tragic portrait of a community of Jewish refugees. Aaron Greidinger, a struggling writer and advice columnist, discovers to his great surprise that Max, a ghost of his Warsaw past, is still alive. Max introduces Aaron to Miriam, his much younger mistress, who falls in love with both men. Miriam’s Holocaust-haunted past contains shameful secrets that Aaron discovers only after he becomes emotionally entangled. In a drama that moves from New York to Israel, from the traumatic past to the still-reeling present, the novel brings to vivid theatrical life the moving romance of lost souls in a world gone “meshugah.”
Published posthumously, MESHUGAH was originally published in Yiddish in serial form in THE JEWISH FORWARD between 1981 and 1983. In 1978, Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his impassioned narrative art, which brings universal human conditions to life. His death in 1991 at age 87 marks the end of a vibrant era, in which Eastern European Jewish writers and poets grappled with the complex issues of maintaining tradition in the modern secular world.
My adaptation involves a certain type of story-telling theatre that attempts to convey an emotionally and philosophically complex story in a style that preserves the unique voice of Singer himself. The spirit of the work is in the novel, and it is my mission to translate this into theatrical terms. Singer’s characters are uniquely theatrical. Their often-hilarious dialogue is meant to be spoken aloud. In many ways they seem to be rushing headlong for the stage. The primary challenge for me in terms of the writing has been to find a way of condensing the picaresque plot without damaging the unwieldy genius of the piece. In other words, I have had to find a proper balance between narration and dramatization. At this point what I need most of all is to test the current balance by putting the work up on its feet.
In terms of direction, it is time to begin exploring the visual component of the story telling. How, for instance, does the movement from narration to dramatization occur? How can the narrator serve the work’s overall theatricality? How effective is the story’s unfolding moment by moment? And finally, how can the musical texture of the piece evoke the lost Jewish world? This is, of course, one of the most vital elements in making this piece a truly theatrical event.
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