THE ARTS 1.29.10
THE ARTS 1.29.10

Puppetry, comedy and the Holocaust merge in unique Fabrik

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Having puppets tell the story of a Polish-born Jew who immigrates to Norway, builds a successful business and then dies in a Nazi concentration camp may seem a bit … incongruous.

But that’s how it’s done in “Fabrik: The Legend of M. Rabinowitz,” which makes a return engagement to the Bay Area with a run at the Jewish Theatre, San Francisco. The play runs from Feb. 4 to 28.

A puppeteer manipulates the Moritz Rabinowitz puppet in “Fabrik.”

Blending history with Yiddish and Norwegian folktales, “Fabrik” (Norwegian for “factory”) is acted entirely with hand-and-rod puppets. It recounts the life of Moritz Rabinowitz, who railed against anti-Semitism and the rise of Hitler while he could.

In spite of the protagonist’s untimely death, the play’s creators see “Fabrik” as ultimately uplifting.

“He was a real character in life,” says co-creator Gabrielle Brechner, a principal with the New York–based theater company Wakka Wakka Productions. “We have comedy, musical numbers. We allow the audience to fall in love with him. It’s not a Holocaust story, it’s a bio-fable.”

Brechner and her Wakka Wakka colleagues wrote the play during a few months as artists-in-residence at the Nordland Visual Theatre in Stamsund, a Norwegian fishing village above the Arctic Circle. She says the area had craggy coasts, mountain sheep — and three government-supported theaters in a town of 1,400.

It’s also the land of trolls and other Scandinavian legends.

“Fabrik” features some of that fanciful material, but at its heart, the play is a Jewish play, according to Brechner, 33, who is Jewish.

“I had been talking for a while doing something with Jewish content,” Brechner says. “We found the show because of our Norwegian company member. But ultimately we would have found the subject matter. It was fated. If you’re looking for a Norwegian Jewish story, this is the one.”

The show’s protagonist escaped the pogroms of Poland to become a progressive employer in Norway. He wrote a manifesto in 1933 that urged businessmen to act as citizens of the world and to treat employees with respect. Later, as the Nazi menace grew, he spoke out against Hitler.

Once the German army overran Norway, Rabinowitz ended up in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he was murdered. No one in his family survived.

Why puppets, then? Brechner says that for one thing, there are 26 characters in the play, and only three actors. So logistics alone require theatrical sleight of hand.

Beyond that, she says, “It’s amazing how you can broaden the scope of what’s on stage. Puppets can do magical things.”

Brechner and her colleagues formed Wakka Wakka in 2001. Since then, the company has created six productions, several of them employing puppets, masks and similar elements.

Theater has always been in Brechner’s blood. Her father ran the New York–based American Jewish Theater, and she remembers spending countless childhood hours in the wings. She earned a degree in theater from the University of Michigan before forming Wakka Wakka.

The company will soon return to Norway to tour with “Fabrik” and to create a new work. Chances are it, too, will feature puppets, a theatrical art form Brechner says gets too little respect in the United States.

“Everywhere else we go, it’s normal,” she says of puppetry in stage. “Here, when we say we use puppets for adult entertainment people ask, ‘Is it puppet porn?’ ”


“Fabrik: The Legend of M. Rabinowitz”
runs from Feb. 4 through Feb. 28 at the Jewish Theatre,San Francisco, 470 Florida St., S.F. $20-$34. Information: (415) 292-1233 or www.tjt-sf.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.