Inspired creativity requires a source, a concept, and the artistic imagination to realize the inspiration. "The Haggadah" meets all of these requirements impressively. The sources of Elizabeth Swados's beautifully cadenced "Passover Cantata" begin with the prose and poetry of Elie Wiesel, notably the section on moses in "Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends." Miss Swados also has drawn on the Old Testament, portions of "The Haggadah," and the poetry of Gabriela Mistral and Kadia Molodowsky. The result, at the Public Theater's LuEstherHall, is extraordinary amalgam of ritual, reverence, and theatrical expression.
In a program note, Miss Swados explains that the seder (the reference point of the cantata) "is a family service which takes place around a dinner table. Friends (especially nonJewish friends) are invited. "The table is set with items that symbolize various aspects of the Jews' slavery and subsequent exodus from Egypt. Bitter herbs symbolize the bitterness of slavery; salt water, the tears of slavery. A mixture of apples and matzoh make the moror -- the mortar which built the pyramids. . . ."
Two children (Craig chang and Martha Plimpton) lead the solemn opening procession as it moves slowly down the long stage space separating two banked seating sections. Nine-year-old Craig becomes the by Moses, giving a performance of exquisite simplicity and directness. Later on, a solemnly towering figure (a human puppet) enters the proceedings as the majestic yet solicitous figure of the God-inspired leader.Director-composer Swados creates a constant flow of visual, physical, and musical images -- all harmonized to tell the epic story and to provide human, familial footnotes.
The incidents and episodes of the cantata include Moses' slaying of the Egyptian, his desert sojourn, the infliction of the plagues (vividly suggested by shadow puppets), the crossing of the Red Sea (an undulating expanse of white nylon that subsides for the Jews and engulfs the Egyptians), and the projected vision of the Ten Commandments. Bearded Zvee Scooler enters the proceedings from time to time with eloquent readings from Hebrew, Yiddish, and English texts.
Miss Swados allows herself one comic puppet scene in which Talmudic scholars wrangle about theological details concerning the plagues while their womenfolk talk cookery and prepare the seder. Sculptural elements recur -- for example in three shoulder-borne pyramids, in a caricatured sphinx of a pharaoh, and in a darkly hovering angel of death.
The work unfolds in a continuum of solos, part songs, choruses, narrative, and choral speaking. Among the numbers that made a particular impression at first hearing were the gospel-like" by the waters of babylon," "Look at the children" (a duet between shami chaikin and violinist caroline dutton), the swingy "holy, holy, holy," and the swados setting for "song of songs."
The superb scenery, costumes, masks, and puppetry are by Julie Taymor. Arden Fingerhut lighted the production. Thanks to all of them, and to the magnificent company of actor-singers, the 90-minute cantata proves a memorable experience -- a creative collaboration to rank with Miss Swados's finest work.