BIBLE'S FIRST ANARCHIST CHAMPIONS THE UNIQUE The Living Theater's stage at 21 Clinton Street is ablaze again where a striking tableau of biblical characters are brought to life by Judith Malina in her new play "Korach", which she wrote and co-directs, starring Tom Walker as Moses and Jerry Goralnick as Korach. The play opened December 8th and runs through February 28th.
Malina lights the torch of defiance for a new generation as she vividly depicts the polarity between Moses and Korach and their respective followers and the violence that ensued. It echoes demonstrations and riots Loisada has seen in the last century, including the Tompkins Square riots in 1988, which pitted artists, hippies, yippies, skinheads and the homeless living in the park against greedy landlords and the mayor and his army.
Both situations involve challenging inhumane laws. In "Korach" Moses leads those who uphold Jewish law and Korach, those who champion non-conformity. It's a theatrical experience that Beat poet Ann Waldman calls "mesmerizing" and applauds the visceral way it breaks down hierarchies between actors and audience. For Korach is a rebel and the play about not conforming to the rules of the system.
Before the play opened I visited Judith at her apartment above The Living Theater hard at work on the script. "What I liked about the chararcter of Korach," says Judith, "is that he and the play express anarchist libertarian ideology. He sets a historical precedent by being the first recorded anarchist who challenged Moses by saying 'we are all holy.' He encouraged his followers to enter the tabernacle where the holy of holies was kept, so they were swallowed up by the earth along with their tenpiretpoles.." Therefore the disappearance of Korach and his tribe can be compared to disappearances of political prisoners in such places as Argentina and Chile. It is not uncommon for dissidents to be wiped out as they have been in Spain and other fascist countries. So although Korach takes place in biblical times, what happened to him and his followers is analogous to what has happened to dissidents and anarchists through the ages.
The play also juxtaposes films of anarchist rebellions, including a speech by Emma Goldman, played by Judith Malina. Play and films show why the anarchist is so dangerous and has to be silenced.
As Judith speaks to me she is seated at her desk surrounded by papers and photographs. Around her neck she wears a peace symbol. On the wall above her are photos of Julian Beck and one of his paintings, a button protesting the death penalty, and a plaque inscribed with a Hebrew prayer.
There are also portraits of Dorothy Day on the wall, with whom Judith spent 30 "glorious" days at the Women's House of Detention, made by an old priests and painted at Martin Sheen's home.
So Malina's commitment to the play is an extension of the next step in making what she calls the "beautiful non-violent revolution" and she hopes it will inspire us to all work together to create a more peaceful world.
The play opens with two sets of characters, Moses and his followers in white robes, and Korach and his in black, and sets up the main conflict of the play, as they challenge and confront each other on issues of individuality and Jewish law: the conformity and elitism of Moses and his ordained priests and the inclusivity offered by Korach.
From these first moments you are involved and transformed by the intensity which the actorss bring, which virtually swirls you across theh stage with them. Audience is seated on pillows around the stage and implored to believe that we should never become silent and complacent, as the actors chant "We can never be destroyed," reminiscent of past protests the neighborhood has witnessed.
I can hear echoes of "It's our park, not your park", and "The people united can never be defeated."
This is also Malina's personal credo, for she is a survivor, albeit a pacifist. She brings perspicacity and optimism to all who come into contact with her and a utopian vision that has kept The Living Theater alive for over sixty years, since it was founded in the mid 1940's by her and Julian Beck.
So that when a trap door opens from the floorboards of the stage and Korach and his followers are swallowed up by the earth, they are eventually triumphant when they re-emerge with the help of a band of angels. The audience is also brought on stage at the end of the play to help effect a reconciliation between Moses and Korach.
The body movement is impeccably choreographed by Carlo Altomare, who also co-directs, and the set design in striking, the stage virtually swathed in colorful tapestries, including a tabernacle to house The Ten Commandments and a version of Mt. Sinai which Moses ascends to bring back the tablets. All of this is done with Dionysian zeal that connects audience to cast, who insist with eyes and facial expressions that we become part of the drama.
I asked Judith her thoughts on politics and theater in connection with the play, and she said "We begin by breaking down distinctions between actors and audience." She says she's always trying to locate that one "glorious" moment when such collaboration occurs. Such communality happens,
particularly in the final scene when audience is asked to speak along with the actors. At this point seized by the inspiration and energy of the actors, anywhere from twenty to fifty rise from their seats and join in, demonstrating a literal and symbolic response to the question how do we break through and become a participant in life?
Malina admits that this is more complicated than it first appears. However, today at 84, she continues to struggle with these issues, trying to provide hope for a peaceful world in which "we are all holy."