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Reviewed by:
  • Jób—an Oratorio For Actors
  • Dennis C. Beck
Jób—an Oratorio For Actors. By Joseph Roth and Martin Dohnal. Adapted by Milan Czerny. HaDivadlo Theatre Company, Kabinet Múz Theatre, Brno, Czech Republic. 22 January 1997.

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Figure 1.

Debora Singer (Iva Volánková), Mirjam Singer (Marian Chmelar=ová), and Mendel Singer (Miroslav Mars=álek) in HaDivadlo Theatre Company of Brno’s production of Jób—An Oratorio for Actors, directed by J. A. Pitínsky;. Kabinet Múz Theatre. Photo: Martin Vybíral.

A production dealing with Jewish themes and characters might seem awkward in a country whose postcommunist practicing Jewish population numbers only 3000. HaDivadlo’s Jób, however, does not trade on Czech nostalgia for the rich, prewar cross-fertilization of Jewish, Czech, and German-Austrian cultures. Its stage adaptation of Josef Roth’s retelling of the Job tale in his novel Sunrising Eyes nonetheless develops a theme of loss. A theatre devoted to clarifying the inner experience of the individual in society, HaDivadlo presents a Jób expressive of losses and threats to Jewish cultural identity, homeland, political ideology, economic well-being, and modernist determinations of meaning—each of which also prove inextricable from contemporary Czech experience.

Even the scenic space of Jób registers loss. A rough wooden platform floats like an island between two banks of seats, in the configuration Czechs call a “tribunal.” One table, twenty chairs, and wide wooden planks that thrust up thigh-high at irregular intervals articulate its relative compactness. Conically shaded lights hanging by long wires provide low downlight that further defines the space. Such is the knowable world in which the adolescent restlessness of the children of Mendel Singer (Miroslav Mars=álek) evolves into the loss of two sons to the military, his daughter Mirjam (Mariana Chmelar=ová) to promiscuity, his home to pogroms, and his favorite son, the hopelessly epileptic Menuchim (Pavel Lis=ka), to the necessity of emigrating without the boy.

The timelessness of the first act, which could be set between 1881 and 1938 in any Russian village, surrenders to a clear sense of pre-WWII America in [End Page 113] the second. The platform is bare—full of possibility, but without defining features. Bright, uniform light now issues from offstage sources removed from the characters’ world. Though part of the first act was performed in Russian, Singer’s family and culture had provided space for his own linguistic heritage (expressed here in Czech). Singer, however, finds the recurrent English of the second act’s America incomprehensible, and as he loses his son-in-law to war, his daughter to insanity, and his wife to death through grief, he begins to lose his language as well. Most importantly, he loses a sense that the world bears any relationship to the beliefs and concepts through which he once understood it.

The production’s music and playing style transform what could have been a simple personal tragedy into the type of communal event modern theatre rarely achieves. Beside the island stage, Martin Dohnal conducts his own score through woodwinds, strings, bells, and male and female choruses of actors. Dohnal’s short pieces of recited text and lyrics drawn from the Old Testament lift the modern action of Singer’s trials out of the mundane. His haunting and complex harmonies and overlapping melodic lines, reminiscent of sacred songs, begin the play with a suggestion that what will transpire both represents and transcends retrospection, aspiring to a kind of evocation. The matter-of-fact movement of the actors to the stage, the playful, periodic exit of musicians through the playing space, and other anti-illusionistic effects fail to dispel this sense of evocation but, rather, prove it to be grounded in something other than mere illusion.

Director J. A. Pitínsky;’s staging amplifies this dual sense of a ritualistic coming-into-being and of collective memory by interlacing a naturalistic playing style with moments of expressionism. Mendel’s punishment of his children for their merciless teasing of Menuchim, for instance, is expressed by an actor in the shadows whipping a switch through the air. At the point of...

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pp. 113-114
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