Less than halfway through “Kaddish” (or “The Key in the Window”), a version of Allen Ginsburg’s poem at The New York Theater Workshop in the East Village, I had to put my pen down, so mesmerized was I by Donnie Mather’s extraordinary performance. That “Kaddish,” which was not only performed but also adapted by Mather himself, coincided with the Jewish holiday of Roshashana was total luck, according to Director Kim Weild, and opening night ended September while ushering in the melancholy of autumn. A perfect backdrop for “Kaddish.”
It is not easy to adapt poetry for the stage without it feeling contrived or pushing for a theatricality that is not there. Ginsburg’s language, however, is a gift to the theater, and lends itself to both drama and storytelling. All it needs is the right actor-adapter to edit and beautifully bring to life the memory poem/prayer for the dead of “Kaddish.” Donnie Mather is that person, and formed his own company, The Adaptations Project (found at www.adaptationsproject.org), in order to do so. “Kaddish” is the inaugural production.
The stage is a black box, with the sole set comprising three windows of varying sizes covered in sheets, white-washed and set in plaster, rendering them opaque enough to be projected on but also sculptural works of art. Apart from lamps, a chair and a suitcase, the stage remains bare.
“Kaddish” focuses on Ginsburg’s mother, Naomi, while sparingly bringing in other family members as well. Naomi, a Russian-Jewish immigrant Communist, was a schoolteacher, played piano, mandolin, cooked and as she says more than once, “…raised two children.”
She also suffered from madness, which grew increasingly worse as she got older. She heard voices, suspected plots against her, and appeared to be a paranoid schizophrenic.
It is clear that as Naomi suffered, so did Ginsburg, and the poem displays enormous anguish and empathy for her. There is barely a shred of self-pity. It is Ginsburg who is the only one left to commit his mother to Bellevue, but he cannot foresee what is to come: years of being confined to a room, electroshock treatments and later, a lobotomy and a stroke.
Donnie Mather’s singular portrayal is riveting. He moves like a dancer and speaks like I imagine Ginsburg would have spoken “Kaddish” himself (sadly, I did not have the privilege of hearing him read). I did not know “Kaddish” before I came to see this production, but I can’t remember being so moved by both actor and play in a very long time.
Ginsberg received a letter from Naomi two days after she died.She wrote–‘The key is in the window, the key is in the sunlight at the window–I have the key–Get married Allen don’t take drugs–the key is in the bars, in the sunlight in the window.
which is Naomi–