nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 17, 2010
One of my companions at Korach told me that she was greatly disappointed in what she saw: the show, she said was not the innovative, crisply professional work that she expected of so venerable and venerated an institution as The Living Theatre. She's not wrong: this new play, written and directed by Judith Malina, is very much of a piece with the kind of work she did with her collaborators back in the '50s and '60s, and there's a homemade, do-it-yourself aesthetic in this production (not unlike that of Bread and Puppet Theater) that's the opposite of slick, technically proficient contemporary theatre craft.
But what passion is in evidence here! Malina and her collaborators are making a kind of dramatic throwback, sure; but a throwback to a time when experimental/avant-garde theatre was synonymous with activist/political theatre. Korach is as subversive a text as I've ever seen on stage; this production, which eventually engulfs its audience in a warm and welcoming finale, mainly exists to prod and push its viewers into a place they've likely not been before, challenging their assumptions about one of the most famous and familiar stories in the Judeo-Christian canon.
It's a story anybody who's been exposed to the Old Testament has heard of (from Numbers, Chapter 16). Moses has led the Jews out of Egypt and they are now wandering in the desert on the way, he tells them, to a Promised Land. Moses's brother Aaron, and Aaron's sons, have been named the high priests. Led by Korach, a group of wanderers rebel:
Now Korach...betook himself...to rise up....against Moses and Aaron and said to them, "You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord's congregation?"
God punishes Korach and his followers swiftly and bitterly; the lesson, we are taught, is that God's will is not to be questioned. But Malina, in her play, offers another interpretation. She says Korach is the first anarchist. What if his rebellion is put down not by the Lord but by powerful men who fear a challenge to their authority? What I love about Korach is the way the play—using the Biblical story more or less verbatim—makes us re-assess what he think we know about this story; makes us challenge the received wisdom we've been operating with all our lives. Korach doesn't feel sacrilegious or dogmatic to me; it's designed to assault our intellect rather than our emotions.
The play is performed by more than dozen actors, most of them committed non-professionals who perform Malina's text and direction with passion and earnestness. Malina's staging includes some genuinely stirring moments, though there are some missteps (the video projected on the floor is almost impossible to decipher, for example). Anchoring the ensemble are two strong presences—Tom Walker as Moses and Jerry Goralnick as Korach—and the extraordinary Sheila Dabney, as Moses's Ethiopian wife Asenat, who leads the musical and dance portions with precision and fervor. Dabney is always thrilling to watch and hear, and in this piece—so close to the audience in the theatre's intimate surroundings—she's indispensable.
I loved where Korach led my thoughts, and I loved how it made me feel. It's a play that offers its audience complete engagement, with a timeless story and with a theatrical tradition that feels perhaps old-fashioned or even out-of-date. I'd trade the sleek surface of so many of our new-fangled polished entertainments for The Living Theatre's rigorous depth any day.