December 9, 2019

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The puppets of swat

WJT's latest production blends Jewish legend with 1920s baseball folklore

By a grand coincidence, Winnipeg Jewish Theatre’s world première production of The Golem’s Mighty Swing plays concurrently with Fun Home at the Tom Hendry Warehouse.

THEATRE PREVIEW

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The Golem’s Mighty Swing
● Adapted from James Sturm’s graphic novel by Marcus Jamin
● Winnipeg Jewish Theatre
● Saturday, Nov. 16 to Sunday, Nov. 24
● Tickets:$15 and $36 at 204-477-7478 or www.wjt.ca

Both plays are adaptations of graphic novels, a form that has yielded many movies, such as Ghost World, Atomic Blonde, Diary of a Teenage Girl and Watchmen. Theatre, on the other hand, has been comparatively slow to mine the graphic novel for material.

But for Toronto-based adapter Marcus Jamin, the material of James Sturm’s 2001 graphic novel proved to be irresistible. Bear in mind Jamin, who was last in Winnipeg creating the puppets for the Tom Hendry Warehouse production of Hand to God, tends to look at stories that can be told in the puppet medium.

"When working on a new show, I ask myself the question: Why do it with puppets when potentially it might be better served with actors? Does it actually support the story?

"Also, I haven’t often seen someone try to depict sport with puppets, so it’s extremely ambitious," he says. "But I feel like we found some really gorgeous, amazing stuff and I think we’ve done a very good job of that.

"But it was very daunting at the beginning."

Toby Hughes (from left), Katherine Cullen, James Smith, Jesse Nerenberg and Ray Strachan with puppets on the set of The Golem’s Mighty Swing. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Toby Hughes (from left), Katherine Cullen, James Smith, Jesse Nerenberg and Ray Strachan with puppets on the set of The Golem’s Mighty Swing. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

One of the challenges is the sheer scope of the story.

"There’s, like, 27 characters in this show," he says. "I tried as much as possible in the adapting process to try to centralize but still there are so many locations and so many characters. And that’s one of the beauties of it."

The show is about the Stars of David, a barnstorming Jewish baseball team travelling through the small towns of America in the 1920s, a period when the sport was spiked with lots of showbiz razzle-dazzle as a bid to entice ticket buyers. For that reason, one of the players is compelled to play in the costume of a golem, a supernatural creature of Jewish myth created out of clay to do the bidding of its master.

That feature lent the story to the medium of puppetry, says director Mitchell Cushman of Outside the March, a Toronto company dedicated to immersive theatre, which is co-producing this show with WJT.

The Golem's Mighty Swing is a 2001 graphic novel.</p>

The Golem's Mighty Swing is a 2001 graphic novel.

"One of the things that makes (puppetry) the perfect medium is that we’re looking at the Jewish folklore myth of the golem, and creating something out of clay and materials to be larger than life and evoke this supernatural power," Cushman says.

"And in a way, that’s what I think Marcus has done in creating these puppets.

"Each of these puppets is made out of humble materials, but ascends to something much larger and awesome and supernatural when it’s finished construction and you see it manipulated onstage."

"In terms of the challenges, this feels like making a claymation movie," Cushman says. "Every minute of stage action has had to be intricately conceived of, with several hours of rehearsal time. It’s very minute work."

When Jamin conceived of adapting the book, he was partially inspired by the Toronto Blue Jays’ journey to an American League Eastern Division title in 2015.

"Toronto was on fire with baseball fever," Jamin says.

Hotshot McGraw hits a home run during a rehearsal of of The Golem's Mighty Swing. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Hotshot McGraw hits a home run during a rehearsal of of The Golem's Mighty Swing. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

But the story’s depiction of small-town prejudice took on an added resonance in the past few years with the rise of racist and anti-Semitic forces that attended a global rise in white nationalism.

"We’ve been developing this show for the past four years and the themes we explore seem to have become chillingly more relevant," says Cushman. "This is a piece that is very much about the power of hate and hate speech and how that can really spiral.

"We see a certain level or rumour and gossip and propaganda that exited in the 1920s but that feels very reminiscent of our social media age and culture.

"We are living in an age when we’re looking at people’s differences, as opposed to their similarities, in a way that is quite disturbing," Cushman says.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Jesse Nerenberg gets his puppet, Fishkin the Pitcher, prepared for set. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Jesse Nerenberg gets his puppet, Fishkin the Pitcher, prepared for set. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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