Miami New Drama's Golem of Havana Stretches From Nazis to Cuban Revolutionaries

Michel Hausmann and Moises Kaufman could have inaugurated their new theater company with a humble play — a two-character piece with a single set, for instance. But The Golem of Havana, opening this weekend at the area's newest theater company, Miami New Drama, is decidedly not humble.

It's an ambitious, budget-busting musical, with full, live orchestration and a cast of 12. The setting shifts from 1950s Cuba on the brink of revolution to 1940s Hungary on the precipice of the Nazi juggernaut. There are explosions, machetes, rainstorms, vivid nightmares, military executions, and the spilling of noble blood. And that's just in the first act.

"Art is about taking risks," says Hausmann, who wrote the book for The Golem of Havana, which premiered in New York to wide acclaim in 2013. "I don't know how to play it safe. It's a huge monetary risk, but I believe wholeheartedly that these are the type of stories people can engage in. This is the piece that speaks to me most as an artist."

Leavened by humor and sprightly music, it's a study in intergenerational tumult and coming-of-age pathos. It begins in 1958, with protagonist Rebecca Frankel, age 14, living in a modest Havana home with her parents, Jewish-Hungarian expats Pinchas and Yutka. Pinchas is a struggling tailor awaiting his big break; Yutka is haunted nightly by memories of World War II. News of their adopted country's upheaval suggests more bloody changes to come, as Castro-led revolutionaries move closer to toppling the Batista regime.

"We don't need to act: Havana is here in Miami."

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Other characters include Arturo, a salt-of-the-earth Cuban neighbor with a dubious record in business. He presents an economic opportunity that can make or break Pinchas. There's also Maria, the family's diligent, self-sacrificing maid; and Teo, Maria's 17-year-old son, who has disappeared to join the revolution.

Maria copes with Teo's absence through faith, while Rebecca deals with her family trauma by making art. She's written a comic book called The Golem of Havana, inspired by the golems of Jewish folklore: clay icons that spring to life. In the musical's opening number, she sings, "The golem is our hero/Our guardian in the night/The golem is our savior/He'll set the world to right." Later, the ensemble joins in: "El golem de la Habana!/He's protecting not only the Jews/El golem de la Habana!/Singing mambos with Celia Cruz!"

The underlying theme becomes clear as the musical's scope widens. Yutka's experience in Nazi Germany is not unlike Teo's struggle in late-'50s Cuba. Oppressed people are oppressed people, whether it's the Jews of Eastern Europe, Cubans under Batista, or Syrian refugees today. We can all benefit from a golem or two.

"What I think is very important about this play is the universality of the situation," says Felipe Gorostiza, who plays Batista. "We tend to think of our situation as totally unique, but people find themselves in these situations all over the world, constantly, through history. Whatever we think is very of-the-present will happen again because we never seem to learn our lesson."

According to Hausmann, this sense of universality is married to more personal elements — particularly when Pinchas and Yutka encounter an ailing Teo, who is fighting for his own survival. "My grandmother went to Auschwitz. She's a survivor," he says. "I was interested in that generation of children of Holocaust survivors... The question becomes: What if Jews could now be on the side of saving another human being?"

The Golem of Havana brims with these sort of life-or-death tests of faith, community, and the human condition. The connection among disparate peoples that undergirds so much of the script also affects the music. Longtime Hausmann collaborator Salomon Lerner's score borrows elements of Cuban and Jewish melodies.

"To me, they don't seem that far apart in a way," Lerner says. "I found similarities I could use to weave together the two styles and make it one. There are songs in the show that feel like they are from Cuba, and other songs that are more klezmer or gypsy music."

Adds Allen Lewis Rickman, who plays Pinchas: "Every number in this show is spectacular... It's melodic, it's catchy, it's involving, and it's great theater music, because you get into it the first time you hear it."

After The Golem of Havana, Hausmann and Kaufman will continue the inaugural season of Miami New Drama in March with Working on a Special Day, an intimate, historical play based on a 1977 Oscar-winning foreign film. In October, they'll stage Gross Indecency, Kaufman's experimental, bilingual play about the downfall of Oscar Wilde. The works share a demographic diversity that Hausmann believes will set his company apart.

"We're very excited about the idea of creating a theater company that does work that is as diverse and dynamic as the city itself," he says. "We want theater to have a conversation with the city. The work that we want to produce needs to be intertwined with Miami society."

For Chaz Mena, who plays Arturo, The Golem of Havana epitomizes this approach. "Our cast reflects the reality of Havana," he says. "After New York, it was arguably the most pluralistic city in the hemisphere. My father's family were North African Sephardic Jews who came to seek their economic fortune in Havana at the end of the 19th Century and then became embroiled in the revolution against Spain. My mother's side of the family is part Basque; we have someone in our cast who is of Basque lineage. It's very dynamic that way. We don't need to act: Havana is here in Miami."

The Golem of Havana
January 14 through February 7 at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach; 305-674-1040, Tickets cost $35 to $65.

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John Thomason