Dance, in chasidic Judaism, moves one closer to God. How fitting then, that Yehuda Hyman’s one-man show, “The Mad 7,” uses dance to tell a classic chasidic folk tale, Reb Nachman of Breslov’s “The Seven Beggars,” in which a web of interlocking stories leads to enchantment and spiritual enlightenment. Hyman’s piece, which will be performed next Thursday evening at the JCC in Manhattan, left an indelible impression when it ran two years ago at the Fringe Festival; critic David Winitsky of the theater website theasy.com called it a “moving, intricately constructed, and heart-lifting two hours of theater that frankly, everyone with a soul and a heartbeat should see.”
Directed by Mara Isaacs, “The Mad 7” takes a multicultural approach to the Nachman story, in which each mendicant of the title has a different physical deformity that serves, unexpectedly, as a mystical avenue to wisdom. In Hyman’s version, a gay, laid-off Jewish office worker in San Francisco is taken on a magic carpet-like journey to different parts of the world, each of which the performer represents through the dance of that particular culture.
Reb Nachman, who was a great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, is attracting increased attention from scholars, including a reassessment of his legacy in Rodger Kamenetz’s recently published “Burnt Books” (which compares Nachman to Kafka); Arye Kaplan’s new (1985) translations of the stories join earlier translations by Martin Buber and Meyer Levin.
Billed as a “mystical comedy with ecstatic dance,” the piece has evolved significantly since Hyman, who trained as a ballet dancer in California, originally performed it as a solo show in a San Francisco café in 1992. After morphing it into a multi-character work, “The Mad Dancers,” through workshops funded by the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, Hyman turned it back into a one-man play. It was the new solo version that caught the attention of Isaacs, who first directed it six years ago at a summer theater institute in Bulgaria.
In an interview, Hyman told The Jewish Week that it was a trip to Safed that initially opened for him a gateway into his own Jewish heritage. “I had no idea of the panorama of world Jewry,” he said. In developing the piece, he has traveled to India and the Ukraine, and has interviewed Persian, Ethiopian, and Yemenite Jews whom he met in Israel.
Hyman is ready to move on from “The Mad 7,” calling next week’s performance the “farewell” one for the piece. But Nachman’s stories continue to fascinate and move him. Working on the show has been painful at times, he said, since it has necessitated “revisiting parts of myself.” But he does not rule out working on another of Nachman’s stories. “Like a blood transfusion, the folk tales course through your body and lead you to another place,” he concluded.
“The Mad 7” will be performed on Thursday, Sept. 13 at 8 p.m. at the JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Ave. For tickets, $15 (members) or $20 (non-members), call the box office at (646) 505-5708.