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Rabbi on the Fringe

Hasidic tale gets updated for the stage

Wayne Hoffman
August 23, 2010
Yehuda Hyman in The Mad 7.(Frank Wojciechowski)
Yehuda Hyman in The Mad 7.(Frank Wojciechowski)

Every August, the Fringe NYC arts festival does the great service of bringing hundreds of new shows to downtown stages during an otherwise-dead season. While a few of the productions have larger aspirations, hoping to catch a producer’s eye for a future run in a bigger house, most are decidedly non-mainstream fare: Some of the titles at this month’s festival include Amsterdam Abortion Survivor, Headscarf and the Angry Bitch, and Love in the Time of Swine Flu. (“And the Tony goes to … .”)

In the midst of all these hip new offerings, though, you’ll find something (at least partly) old and traditional: The Mad 7, a one-man show inspired by The Seven Beggars by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the legendary Hasidic storyteller who died in 1810 (and whose biography, by Rodger Kamenetz, is due out this fall from Nextbook Press).

“Nachman was definitely a Fringe performer in his time,” Yehuda Hyman, who wrote and performs The Mad 7, told The Scroll. “He went against the establishment. He was untraditional, adventurous, and somewhat outrageous. Besides all that, he would occasionally disappear from his followers and show up in another town in costumed disguise, pretending to be someone else. What could be more Fringe?”

Nachman’s story has been updated somewhat. In Hyman’s version, it’s about a San Francisco-based administrative assistant named Elliot Green who embarks on a “mystical quest,” complete with song and dance; on his journey, Elliott meets the characters from the original tale. “The characters of The Seven Beggars are timeless and I have not updated them,” Hyman explained. “It is Elliott’s interaction with them, as a person living in 2010 and his struggle to live a life of meaning in the context of today’s world, that is the updating part. I have tried to be faithful in spirit to Rabbi Nachman’s tale.”

Of course, the whole thing is somewhat abbreviated, because the original tale took Rabbi Nachman 10 days to tell. Hyman had to fit Nachman’s “wild tour of the mysteries of the universe” into a single evening, so he had to be “selective” about what he kept.

“Rabbi Nachman’s essential teachings are about the absolute necessity of finding joy in one’s life and fighting against sadness and depression,” said Hyman. “How do we find and nurture our souls? The Seven Beggars appears to me to be a sort of recipe book for how to achieve this. My hope is that I can pass on some of this beautiful teaching and do it in a way that is easy and entertaining for people.”

The Mad 7 plays through next weekend at the East Village’s 4th Street Theatre.

Related: Burnt Books [Nextbook Press]

Wayne Hoffman is executive editor of Tablet Magazine.