January 27, 2020

Kabbalah: Scary Jewish Stories

At one point in the play, “Kabbalah: Scary Jewish Stories,” a yeshivabocher and a severed talking head careen across the Abyss. The Baal Shem Tov battles a werewolf. And a hapless youth accidentally marries a re-animated corpse, which nonchalantly re-adjusts an eye-socket while pleading its case before the rabbinical court.

Welcome to “Kabbalah,” the kind of tongue-in-cheek macabre fare one might expect from director Stuart Gordon, best known for the horror cult classic film, “Re-Animator.” When Gordon explores his Jewish roots, you get tales of debauched Kabbalists, shtetl zombies and water demons in the mikvah. But because these are Jewish scary stories, the director notes, there is always a moral, a battle between good and evil, and a wise rabbi to make everything right.

Gordon first thought up the play not long after his adult bar mitzvah in 1997, when he chanced upon folklorist Howard Schwartz’s edition of scary Jewish folk tales, “Lilith’s Cave,” at a Temple Beth Hillel book fair. The amiable Gordon, director of “Dolls” and “From Beyond,” had previously read Midrashim about the supernatural and had even researched a script about the demon-queen Lilith for “Hellraiser IV” — until the producers nixed the idea. “They said it was too far afield,” Gordon recalls, wryly. “But it started to bother me that demonic possession movies were always Catholic.”

With the tales in “Lilith’s Cave,” Gordon saw the potential for a Jewish horror movie and also a play; the piece would be performed in the style of his mentor, Paul Sills, a founder of Second City and the Story Theatre, in which the actors narrate their own action. Enter comedian Avery Schreiber, a veteran of both Second City and the Store Theatre, who brought actors from his own improv workshop and, with Gordon and the other performers, improvised the script from Schwartz’s translations. An elderly Yiddishist, a Holocaust survivor, was on set to consult with the thespians. And when Gordon saw the Golden State Klezmers perform with a mariachi group at Temple Isaiah, he knew he had found the perfect live incidental music.

What is surprising about Gordon, who grossed out his “Re-Animator” actors by taking them to the county morgue, is that he actually has a horror of horror films. When he was a child, his parents did not allow him to watch any scary movies; thus he sneaked out of the house to see “The Tingler” or “House on Haunted Hill,” only to suffer grievous nightmares and insomnia afterwards. Gordon recalls a “wild escape from the drive-in” mid-way through a David Cronenberg movie; he slept with all the windows locked, one summer, after reading Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” “I would rather have sweltered,” he says, dryly, “than let a vampire in.”

Directing scary movies, he concedes, is a way of mastering his fears. “When you make horror film, you’re controlling them,” he explains. “You know how everything is done.”

Gordon’s career began at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where his anti-Establishment Screw Theater made the national news (and brought obscenity charges) after he staged a nude version of “Peter Pan.” When the university informed him that a professor would have to sit in on any future productions, he dropped out and moved to Chicago, where the Screw transformed into the acclaimed Organic Theater. It was there that Gordon co-created the long-running “Bleacher Bums” and met a cocky young David Mamet, who kept pestering him with scripts he assured everyone would win the Pulitzer Prize. Gordon went on to stage the world premiere of Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.”

Thirty-five original plays and adaptations later, Gordon moved to Hollywood, directed films like “The Pit and the Pendulum” and co-created “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” when his daughters clamored for him to make a movie he would actually let them see.

Now he’s hoping to direct a film based on Schwartz’s book, perhaps a Lilith trilogy or something about the fallen Kabbalist Joseph della Reina, who chants the “Shema” backwards to conjure up lovely women in his bedroom. Joseph, after all, rivals the creepiest of contemporary horror characters. “He is,” Gordon says, “the ultimate stalker.”

“Kabbalah” plays on Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Jan. 7 through Feb. 13 at the Lex Theater, 6760 Lexington Ave, Hollywood. For tickets and information, call (323) 957-5782.