An ancient Jewish folk tale about a man who mistakenly marries a corpse has been turned into a theatrical production that will be performed as part of this year’s Ashkenaz Festival.
“It’s sort of an urban legend. No one knows if it’s true,” said The Corpse Bride’s co-producer Niki Landau. “It seemed to be absurd, but there was something interesting about it, so we started to develop it.”
She originally came across the story while teaching a course at York University in 2002, and together with her husband, co-producer Paul Lampert, they developed it into a workshop production in 2007 and now into a theatrical production by their company, Theatre Panik.
The story is told as a movement piece set to live music, with an ode to traditional Yiddish theatre and German cabaret. “I learned a type of movement theatre which is quite common in Europe,” Lampert said.
“In Canada, there is a much more oral tradition, so this particular style is unique. It’s a cross between rhetorical gestures, as was seen in silent films, and partly mime as well, so you need really good actors for it.”
The tale comes from a collection of stories about the 16th-century mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed.
According to the tale, a man on the way to his wedding puts a ring on a branch protruding out of a forest and says the Jewish wedding vows, and is surprised when the branch turns out to be a corpse who claims they are married. The corpse fights with the man’s fiancée, both determined to become his wife. The case is brought before Rabbi Luria who rules that the marriage is not valid.
“The story became more popular during the pogroms of eastern Europe in the 19th century,” said Landau. “I found it interesting that it focused on women’s experiences, which is hard to find.”
The play features 14 actors, including Evelyn Hart, a former prima ballerina with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and four live musicians. “The play asks you to think about what you do when your life doesn’t work out the way you want it to or the way you thought it would be,” said Landau. “It’s a life question – what do you do next?”
Both producers share ties to the history of the tale. Born in Poland, Lampert was interested in the “shtetl” feel of the story. “It’s a time of great innocence, and you see that exemplified by musicals like Fiddler on the Roof,” said Lampert. “I wanted to explore these aspects of Jewish Yiddish theatre.”
Landau’s great-grandparents were from Poland and Russia, “so in a way, it’s an ode to that time,” she said. “I wanted to look back at that time, to see how we got to where we are today.”
The story is also the basis for Tim Burton’s 2005 movie Corpse Bride featuring Johnny Depp and Emma Watson, but there is no Jewish aspect incorporated in his version. “I felt like the Jewish history of the folk tale was really important,” said Landau. “We wanted to preserve that.”
Overall, they hope the production appeals to a diverse audience. “Everyone loves to see the problems that arise when a wedding goes wrong and that’s what this is,” said Landau.
The Corpse Bride plays Aug. 30, Sept. 1 and 2 at Enwave Theatre at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. This is a ticketed event. For more information about this and other Ashkenaz events, visit www.ashkenazfestival.com.