The tales of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a Hasidic master of the 19th century, guide its listeners on a spiritual journey — from the mundane everyday to the divine. “The Mad 7,” which plays through Sunday, March 9, at McCarter Theater, as part of the second annual IN-Festival of new works, is an updating of “The Seven Beggars,” Nachman’s complex story within a story within a story, a government office worker named Elliot Green. Green’s life is entirely circumscribed by his typewriter, the reports he writes, and his morning break but he is able to break out of his repetitive routine and explore the spiritual world that gives meaning to the everyday.
It all happens with a little help from strangers he meets, each with a disability that later proves to be a blessing — one that is finally bestowed upon Elliot. Each blessing comes in the form of a story that Elliot struggles to understand.
Yehuda Hyman plays all the parts, including the hapless Elliot, a counterself (the traditional yetzer hara, the evil inclination) projected on the wall, each of the strangers, and Elliot’s boss. The characters reveal themselves in words, dance, movement, mime, and gesture, with the strangers prodding and nudging Elliot to become everything he can be. And there’s lots of humor.
The story “The Seven Beggars” was actually sitting on a shelf in Hyman’s childhood home in the book “Classic Hasidic Tales.” Yet the story only became part of his life many years later, when he had reconnected with his Jewish roots.
In 1992, he had been invited to Israel to participate in a symposium of Jewish artists in Jerusalem. The conference’s sponsor, the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, had deliberately brought to Israel Jews who were also artists to expose them to the range of Jewish and Israeli culture — from poets, to novelists, to Moroccan rabbis, from the religious to the totally secular.
Hyman already knew one of the other attendees, clarinetist Giora Feidman, who strongly suggested that Hyman visit Safed, a town in the mountains of the Upper Galilee, whose mystical roots date from the 16th century and whose air of spirituality penetrates stones, synagogues, and inhabitants alike.
In Safed, on the advice of a friend, Hyman visited a rabbi who was part of the Breslov Hasidic movement founded by Rabbi Nachman. Hyman says the rabbi became “very excited” when he learned Hyman is a dancer, because for Hasidim intense circle dancing to wordless melodies called nigunim is an important way to approach God.
That trip to Safed was the little spark that brought Hyman into a relationship with Rabbi Nachman. “It wasn’t like any big explosion,” he recalls, “but little things started sinking in.”
In Safed’s Rimon Hotel Hyman was staying in Room 7, seven being a number with mystical significance in Judaism, in large part because the Sabbath is the seventh day of the week. The people at the hotel made a big deal about the room, and although it had no windows — and Hyman admits to being a little claustrophobic — “you could feel the history and the mystery.”
While in Room 7 at the Rimon Hotel, Hyman thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to do a little play with seven stories?”
Although he had always loved Hasidic tales, the ones he knew were all simple and short. So he asked a rabbi whether he knew of anything with seven stories. When the rabbi suggested “The Seven Beggars,” Hyman read the Martin Buber translation on a train. “It was wild,” he remembers thinking. “I didn’t know what was going on, but it really moved me.”
He started to put together what he already knew about the story and Nachman: that a piece of the story was quoted in the Yiddish play “The Dybbuk”; that a song he knew was based on a line from Nachman, “All the world is a narrow bridge, and the principle thing is not to fear”; and that a Feidman tune he loved was a Reb Nachman niggun.
From another rabbi he learned about another translation of “The Seven Beggars,” by Aryeh Kaplan. Kaplan’s extensive footnotes gave Hyman some background on what might have been going on in Nachman’s personal life when the story was told and explained allusions in the story to passages in the Torah and Talmud. “It really opened up the story for me,” he says.
Hyman’s play, “The Mad 7” developed from years of trying to grasp what was really going on in “The Seven Beggars.”
When he first came to this material, Hyman was living in San Francisco. It was the mid-’90s and there was a lot of interest in solo performance. He first offered a piece based on “The Seven Beggars” at a cafe called “The Marsh.”
He developed the solo piece over nine months. One day during that period he was walking on the street and found an old battered suitcase. He started to imagine things coming out of the suitcase, and slowly conjured up a character, a disaffiliated Jew who finds the suitcase and discovers inside it parts of his Jewish soul.
“It became a dance,” says Hyman. “I started to transform myself into a Hasid, and once I was transformed, I started playing with the first story.” It is about several survivors of a shipwreck who challenge each other as to who has the oldest memory. Their responses range from a fruit in a garden, likened to a child in a womb, to the nothingness that precedes God’s creation of the world, rendered here as gor nisht, a common Yiddish expression for “nothing.”
Hyman began to understand the story’s power as he heard himself speak that story, after he had memorized the words. It was only then he realized the story was transformative.
As Hyman went on to wrestle with the second story within a second story — about a magnificent city and a beautiful garden that had become corrupted — he revisited Safed, Israel, this time for six weeks. Hyman spent a lot of time chasing down a Breslover rabbi who he hoped would explain what the story really meant, finally meeting up with him the night before Hyman was scheduled to leave Israel. The rabbi, Lazar Koenig, did not speak English yet was able to illuminate the tale.
Here is how Hyman remembers that evening: “He went to a shelf, took a book down, and closed his eyes. It sounds so simple — it had to do with his gestures and intake of breath. He said, `It’s about the good life.’ In his speech and gestures and facial expression I got the whole thing in that moment.” And when Hyman is on stage, that is how his audience also begins to understand the story.
Hyman’s rendering of “The Seven Beggars” adds another dimension beyond Nachman’s tale. It also brings to bear another truth he learned on his first trip to Israel. “I became completely in love with this knowledge that Judaism is multicultural,” he says, and he infuses Nachman’s story with cultural nuances — from the shimmering shawl of a Sefardic Jew to the black hat and long earlocks of an ultra-Orthodox Jew. “The stories are like fairy tales and could be anywhere,” he says. “I thought it would be fun and theatrical to place them anywhere, so I decided to place them in different places in the Jewish Diaspora.”
This required more exploration. He flew to Portland to visit with Solomon Ezra, an Ethiopian Jew who was very involved in the airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
Hyman also spent a weekend with an elderly woman from Rhodes, Sara Levi, who was part of the decimated community there.
During his first solo performance of this story in a San Francisco cafe Hyman was just beginning to explore playwriting. At that point, Hyman felt he couldn’t do justice to the story as one person, so he created a version with three actors, then four, and finally it became a full play with seven actors called “The Mad Dancers.” This award-winning piece, with a Rabbi Nachman-like character and disciples who travel into the future, played in Washington, DC, and won a Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays Award.
This latest version, “The Mad 7” — playing in a purple-framed rehearsal room at McCarter Theater, where audience and actor are part of a single experience — was created last summer. Mara Isaacs, the director, had been invited to direct any play she wanted at the Rhodopi International Theater Collective, a summer institute in Bulgaria. She asked Hyman if he would like to develop the play as a solo performance. The workshop performance received a very positive response.
Hyman’s father grew up in Ratno, Poland. He was a tailor, which is what his family name, Chaitt, means in Yiddish. His mother was born in Russia, but grew up in Istanbul after escaping from the Revolution. She was a nurse. His parents met in the United States after the war, and Hyman grew up in Los Angeles.
Hyman started out as a dancer, moving to New York after high school. His career began when he traveled to Brussels, Belgium, at age 16 to attend Maurice Bejart’s movement-based theater school, MUDRA, where he studied movement, gesture, dance, voice, and drama.
In part reflecting Hyman’s own search for personal meaning, the main character, Elliot Green, starts out with feet planted on the treadmill of a very humdrum life — “a very depressed, repressed person,” says Hyman. As he accidentally starts running into strange people, the first on a bench in front of the office building where he works, one presses him to get on a bus that takes him into different worlds, places, and stories. Hyman is Elliot and maybe 10 different characters. “They are telling the story, but he is in the story, experiencing things, growing, and getting in touch with his soul.”
The Mad 7, through Sunday, March 9, at McCarter Theater’s the Room, 91 University Place. Modern day play based on Rabbi Nachman Breslov’s “The Seven Beggars,” written and performed by Yehuda Human. Directed by Mara Isaacs. $12. 609-258-2787.