A hassidic tale morphs into a modern-day myth

Yehuda Hyman portrays 12 revelatory characters in his one-man show, based on a story by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.

311_crazy man (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_crazy man
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If Madonna can take charge in Kabbaladom, surely there must be a fiefdom for Yehuda Hyman. The New York-based dancer, choreographer, writer has devoted nearly 18 years to developing his show The Mad 7. Based on the story “The Seven Beggars,” Hyman’s one-man performance piece transports the Orthodoxy of that hassidic tale to secular America.
Written in 1810 by the great hassidic thinker Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, “The Seven Beggars” is an enormously complex story. Told in fairy tale fashion, it begins with the destruction of a kingdom and is followed by the story of six beggars, each recounting a tale of his own until the levels of meaning and symbolism become so inextricably connected that any effort to analyze the parts would be far too daunting.
But transforming that into a modern- day myth with dance and music and performing all the characters in it – well, now you’re talking about the inexplicable task Yehuda Hyman has taken on.
The fruits of his labor will be performed at the New York International Fringe Festival on a few precious dates between August 13 and 29. While Hyman has performed various incarnations of the show from Princeton, New Jersey, to Smolyan, Bulgaria, this production marks his New York debut.
It’s not the first such undertaking for Hyman, who in his earlier works mined the Grimm fairy tales from the perspective of Bruno Bettelheim to explore their darker, psychological meanings.
As The Mad 7 opens, Elliott Green is an unhappy office drone under pressure to produce a report for his insistent boss when his mundane world is interrupted by a series of interlopers directly out of Nachman’s tale: a blind man who sees everything, a deaf man who hears everything, a stammerer who is a wonderful orator, and so on.
“The story,” Hyman explains, “is about these seven characters, each with a perceived disability that actually turns out to be their strongest point. And through Elliott’s entering into their worlds, he begins to change – to open up and find out who he really is inside,” he says. “He goes through a physical change. But more importantly, his idea of himself is so tiny and dark, and he opens up like a beautiful flower.”
WHILE NACHMAN’S tale is, among other things, a metaphor for the Jewish Diaspora, Hyman explains how it speaks to us today. “As you know, ‘The Seven Beggars’ was the last story the Rebbe ever told. He died before he finished telling it. But I see it as his final gift to the world. And it may not be what he intended, but I have taken it as Elliott does in the story – as going through these seven passages in order to live in the highest way that he possibly can as a human being. There are seven meditations, seven prayers, seven doors of learning.”
The beauty of Hyman’s interpretation lies in its simplicity. “The original story is about traveling,” he says. Hyman offers an example from ‘The Seven Beggars’ “about these people who want to go to the Tree of Knowledge, and only the Hunchback has the strength to carry everyone up there. In The Mad 7, I made him a Helicopter Pilot who’s taking Elliott all the way – although Elliott doesn’t know it at the time – all the way to Israel. Part of Elliott’s journey at that point is that he’s gotten very, very serious and he can’t get to where he needs to go; he’s too heavy. He’s weighing himself down. So part of the learning there is how to lighten up.”
In the play, the Pilot challenges Elliott, barraging him with alternatives. “Can you do celebrity imitations? Contortions? Funny faces?” Hyman offers a quote from Rabbi Nachman about the importance of foolishness and humor in spiritual development.
“It can’t be too.. like you’ve discovered the mysteries of the universe,” Hyman imparts whimsically. “So that’s what Elliott is learning here.”
In The Mad 7, the performance artist portrays 12 distinct characters with accents and behaviors reflective of their cultural heritage. As for the seven beggars, each is from a different part of the Jewish Diaspora, cultures that Hyman had never encountered until he took his first trip to Israel, where he was invited in 1992 to participate in a cultural exchange with artists from around the world. There he encountered Jews from Morocco, India, the island of Rhodes – places he would soon visit on his own in order to research his one-man show.
“I flew up to Portland,” Hyman enthuses, “to meet a man who is an Ethiopian Jew. He was instrumental in the airlift when they were lifting people out of Ethiopia.” In The Mad 7, he’s the Helicopter Pilot.
Like the character of the Hunchback in “The Seven Beggars” or the Pilot in The Mad 7, Hyman is “the little that holds a lot.” Diminutive in size, his transformations reveal the essence of character in simple choreographic strokes. Later, some of these gestures develop into full-scale dance as when Elliott dons a black hat with payot attached to it. With his left hand cupped behind his ear, stepping one foot in front of the other, he looks like he’s walking on a tightrope. But when he begins to spin, it’s as if he were creating something from nothing. The result is less about the act of creation than it is about the art of revelation.