Waiting for the unknown can be filled with terrors of its own. In “Mr. M,” a new work by Vit Horejs’ Czech-American Marionnette Theater, live actors and puppets combine to tell the story of a Czech Jew (Ronny Wasserstrom) during the Second World War who lives in such dread of being summoned by the Nazis that he takes on physical trials to prepare himself to undergo deprivation and torture. Adrienne Cooper performs Yiddish songs live as part of the production, which will be presented at both the Theater for the New City and at the JCC in Manhattan.
The play comes at a time when mixing actors and puppets is an especially popular device, in works ranging from Rinne Groff’s “Compulsion,” about Meyer Levin’s obsession with Anne Frank, to Bradley Kemp’s “Triangle,” about the tragic Lower East Side garment factory fire in 1911. “Mr. M” is part of a European genre called “Zivacek,” (“living” in Czech), characterized by the visibility of the actors who manipulate the puppets. Deborah Beshaw, Michelle Beshaw, Theresa Linnihan, and Steven Ryan are all featured in the cast.
Horejs discovered a cache of marionettes in the attic of the Jan Hus Church on East 74th Street in 1990. His company has performed works on a wide variety of Jewish and non-Jewish themes; some of the former include “Golem,” “The Very Sad Story of Ethel & Julius, Lovers and Spyes…” and “The Historye of Queen Esther, of King Ahasverus & of the Haughty Haman.”
“Mr. M” is based on a 1963 novel by the non-Jewish writer Ladislav Fuks entitled “Pan Theodor Mundstock,” about an ordinary Jewish man who prepares for the inevitable by simulating the concentration camp environment in his apartment, forcing himself to sleep on hard boards, to undergo hard labor, and to toughen his mind against insults.
In an interview, Horejs recalled that he first read Fuks’ novel in the 1970s, and it reminded him both of the work of Fuks’ Jewish countryman, Franz Kafka, and of that of the German Jewish novelist, Lion Feuchtwanger. Horejs took the title “Mr. M” to echo Kafka’s character “K.” in his unfinished novel, “The Castle,” and he incorporated the underlying theme of Feuchtwanger’s trilogy, “The Waiting Room,” in which the whole world is seen as a place for Jews to await their deportation and death. When “Mr. M” finally receives his summons, it comes as somewhat of a relief that the terrible period of waiting is over.
“We started from a shadow,” Horejs told The Jewish Week. “Mr. M was lit so that his shadow appeared on the wall. We decided to take the shadow off the wall and make it a separate character.” The shadow, played by a puppet manipulated by Michelle Beshaw, functions as the main character’s alter ego, subconscious and conscience.
Why is the particular mix of actors and puppets so popular right now? Horejs noted that it furnishes an opportunity to create an inner dialogue, especially when you double the character by having it played by both an actor and puppet at the same time. “You get much deeper into the other part of the psyche,” Horejs said. “These other artists must have discovered what I discovered a long time ago.”
“Mr. M” runs from April 14-May 1 at the Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. Performances are Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets, $10, call the box office at (212) 254-1109.
The production continues May 5 at 8 p.m., May 7 at 9 p.m. and May 8 at 5 p.m. at the JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Ave. For tickets, $15 members/$20 non-members, call the box office at (646) 505-5708.