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String Theory

String Theory

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

Puppets may be lifeless objects, but in the right hands, they command extraordinary emotional power. So veteran puppeteer and playwright Vit Horejš has demonstrated time and again with his Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater, which returns this week with “King Executioner.” It’s a mysterious fable about a friendship between a Jewish musician and a young member of the Polish resistance at the outbreak of the Second World War.

Adapted from Tadeusz Nowak’s magical realist novel, “When You are a King, You Will be an Executioner,” the play runs at the Theater for the New City. Frank London of the Klezmatics composed the music, based on Polish folk songs.

The 70-minute play follows Piotr, who protects his Jewish friend, Moses, from a mob of peasants who demonize Jews as worse than Germans. But Piotr’s ability to save his friend is complicated by his own trauma, which includes his being selected by the partisans to carry out the execution of two traitors, neighbors whom he had known since childhood. As the play moves toward its violent conclusion, Piotr has excruciating choices to make between his duty to his friend and to his country.

Horejš (pronounced Horz-aysh) found a trove of 69 marionettes, some of which were close to 200 years old, at Jan Hus Church in Manhattan in 1984. Since then, he has created and directed more than a dozen plays, from versions of “Hamlet” and “The Golem” to historical dramas like “The Life and Times of Lee Harvey Oswald” and “The Very Sad Story of Ethel & Julius.”

The master puppeteer told The Jewish Week that he was drawn to Nowak’s novel because magical realism is unusual in Eastern European culture. And in showing the devastating psychological effects of war, Horejš noted, the play strikes a contemporary chord at a time when many American soldiers have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with agonizing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

As Horejš has made his trademark, both puppets and their handlers are visible in the production and all are able to interact with each other. The doubling of each character means that a character’s internal conflict can be shown by a “dialogue” between the actor and object. And when a character dies, both the actor and puppet fall together.

“It’s a double tragedy when both of them die,” Horejš said, noting that “in some ways it’s even more moving to see a puppet die than it is to see a human actor die. This is because the puppets are symbols, and people sometimes identify more with symbols than with people. It’s like a religious experience; it transcends reality in a touching and compelling way.”

“King Executioner” runs through April 7 at the Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8, with Sunday at 3. For tickets, $10, call (212) 868-4444 or visit

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