Mettawee River Theater blends Arab and Jewish folk tales in 'The Dancing Fox'


CUMMINGTON -- A Leviathan, the most powerful being on the planet, envies the cleverness of the fox. With all his power, he feels the fox does not respect him. So he lays a plot to eat the fox's heart.

This Sufi parable becomes the title story in "The Dancing Fox: Wisdom Tales of the Middle East," a performance adapted from the teachings of Sufi mystics and Jewish and Arabic fables and folklore. The Mettawee River Theater Company will bring these stories to life with masks and giant puppets, costumes and music, outdoors in towns across Massachusetts, Vermont and New York.

Ralph Lee, artistic director of the Mettawee River Theater Company, has led his company in performances for 39 years now, and most summers they have produced a new show, but recently they have revived some old favorites.

Lee created "The Dancing Fox" 12 years ago. He was working with students at the Union Theological Society in New York, and the seminary wanted a play for the students. To create one, Lee delved into Sufi stories that attracted him.

He studied the writings of scholars like Idries Shah, who spent his life collecting works of Sufi literature and translating them into English, and Heinrich Zimmer, a professor at Baliol, Oxford, and Columbia University who studied Sanskrit and Hindu mythology. (Zimmer became friends with Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung.)

From parables like "The man and the snake" Lee put together a short production from Arab and Middle Eastern sources.

But he wanted to pair this material with stories from Jewish folk traditions, and the chance soon came his way.

"The theological seminary across the street called me to work with their students," he said.

So Lee expanded his explorations into centuries of Jewish storytelling and midrash.

In Jewish lore he found the same themes he had found in Arab material, he said, themes of compassion, love between brothers, the brutality of mankind toward each other and other species.

"Jews and Arabs are brothers," Lee said. "They come from the same stock. If only they could wake up to that fact, they could find harmony, rather than being intent on battle. When we did this show 12 years ago, people said it was timely. Now they are saying it again."

So, in this performance, he has brought their stories together.

"I find myself very fond of this material," he said, "the characters and the way it speaks to people."

Generated over centuries, the stories have evolved over time he said, and kept fresh.

In one comic story, a miser too mean to buy a new pair of shoes gets his comeuppance.

"You have to learn how to let go," Lee said.

In some, animals copy the behavior of humans so the storyteller can laugh at it. Lee smiled over a Sufi short piece called "The Certificate," in which a rabbit asks a fox to prove he's a fox, and the fox goes to a lion to get a written statement.

That satire holds good centuries after Rumi.

"I was cutting open an apple today from the supermarket," Lee said, "and all the fruit is tagged nowadays -- as though you have to prove it's an apple."

Lee's company will perform these adapted stories to music, a new score by Neal Kirkwood, who composed the score to Lee's adaptation of "Archy and Mehitabel" two years ago.

"His primary love is jazz, but he composes in all forms," Lee said."His music is contemporary. It has a timeliness about it. But it reflects the roots of these stories."

He has drawn on Middle Eastern and traditional Jewish forms for this new composition.

A solo accordion player will perform most of the score, and the actors will play and sing. Accordion, Lee added, shows up often in klezmer music.

He has altered the performance for this new season, he added, not in the text but in the visual elements.

"We work with all kinds of myths and legends from different cultures," he said,

Masks and puppets, actors and music seem to him a rich way to represent divine strength, belief, an awe at the workings of the world.

They also hope to represent people as clearly today, in New England, as the storytellers represented them in the Middle East, with music and laughter and shrewd observation.

In the title story, the play holds the magic of a blithe fox riding through the sea on the backs of two giant fishes.

He tells them -- "I always leave my heart at home."

If you go ...

What: Mettawee River Theater Company, ‘The Dancing Fox

Where: 8 p.m. Sunday, July 27, at Pettingill Field,Cummington

Friday, Aug. 1, at the Buckland School in Shelburne Falls

Sunday, Aug. 3, at Springside Park in Pittsfield

7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 2,
Mountain School, Shrewsbury

Admission: Free



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