by Joel Markowitz
In its 94th year, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, is alive and full of energy and ended 2008 with two productions. It was the last day of Chanukah and Joel Markowitz made sure to see them both on his recent swing through NYC. Here he interviews actor Adam Shapiro from the critically acclaimed Gimpel Tam, and artistic director Zalmen Mlotek and his daughter Sarah from the children’s production of Kids and Yiddish.
Gimpel Tam closed Dec. 28th. Kids and Yiddish closes January 4th. Folksbiene’s season continues with its spring production of Shpiel! Shpiel! Shpiel!, three short plays filled with laughter and pathos by Murray Schisgal (Oscar and Golden Globe nominated author of Tootsie). The three plays are The Pushcart Peddlers, The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Crying, and 74 Georgia Avenue. For more information about Folksbiene and their 2009 season, click here.
Adam Shapiro on playing ‘the not so simple’ Gimpel
It’s not easy playing a man who the entire town calls a fool, a man they ridicule. It’s even more difficult to make the audience feel sorry for you when you make stupid decisions. I got a rise out of actor Adam Shapiro’s performance as the simple baker and asked him to talk about playing the role, which is his first venture into performing in Yiddish.
Adam: Gimpel Tam is about a man named Gimpel – “Tam” means “fool” or “simpleton” in Yiddish – who wants so much to believe that people are honest and good, that he believes everything he is told, “Why would everyone lie? The whole town can’t be crazy!”. Sadly, the human nature of the rest of the town is not as sweet as Gimpel’s. They constantly take full advantage of him, making him believe that the Messiah has come and his parents have risen from the grave, handing him goat turds and telling him they are raisins, etc. Then, as their coup de grace, they marry him off to Elke, the village tramp. She already has one child when they meet (who she convinces him is her little brother), then arrives at the wedding very pregnant and gives birth under the chupah, the wedding canopy. She convinces Gimpel that the child is his, saying, “It’s all you have to do to look at me and I get pregnant. The same thing happened to Adam and Eve. Am I so different from Eve”?
She continues to have children over the course of their marriage, despite the fact that she won’t let Gimpel touch her. Gimpel goes along with it, and later explains that he chooses to believe because, “Today you don’t believe your wife. Tomorrow you might not believe in God”. In the end, Gimpel stays true to himself, turning down the opportunity for ultimate revenge on the people who have treated him so horribly, and dies, content in the knowledge that he believes in love and in the good of humanity.
Joel: How did you get involved with Gimpel Tam?
Adam: I auditioned for Folksbiene in the spring for a different show, which I ended up not doing. Then, when casting for Gimpel Tam had begun, they remembered me and called me to come in and audition again. The rest, as they say, is history.
Joel: Has your Yiddish improved since taking on the role?
Adam: Oh my yes! I came into this with no Yiddish background. I spoke Gornisht (nothing). The wonderful people at the Folksbiene really took me under their wing; sent me to classes, gave me tapes, and sat with me for several hours total – just going over my dialogue, explaining to me the emphasis of certain phrases, literal translations, etc. I have never learned a language in the context of a show before, and it was wonderful learning all these basics, and having something to apply them to. While I can hardly call myself fluent, I do know a bisl (little) Yiddish now, and I look forward to learning more. If I have anything to say about it, this won’t be the last Yiddish theatre I do.
Joel: How did you prepare to play Gimpel?
Adam: Well, the way I prepare for any role is to really try and start thinking and reacting like the character. The way I would react to something – and the way Gimpel would react – are two different things, and I would always have to check myself and ask “are you thinking like Gimpel right now, or like Adam?”. In many ways, Gimpel is the eternal child, so I thought about some of the kids I have met over the years who have had that childlike innocence – where they just really don’t know things – and are trying to find them out. It did get a little strange though combining that with the scene where I’m trying to get Elke into bed. I suppose then the child had to give way to the teenager.
Joel: How do you relate to Gimpel?
Adam: There is a lot that Gimpel and I have in common. First of all, we both lost our mothers at a young age. When a child loses a parent very young, past the grief, there is this odd sense of a world gone mad. Things just don’t make sense anymore, and all you want is for people to help you figure things out again. I remember that feeling. Luckily, I still had family and friends to help me. Poor Gimpel only had a Grandfather, who loved him, but didn’t know how to help him, and then died soon after.
Admittedly, I was also that kid on the playground who got teased a lot, which is ironic, because even then I was a head taller than most of the kids in my class, and was always a bigger built kid. I probably could have kicked everyone’s butt in a second, but I didn’t know that – and it’s probably just as well. I’m a lover, not a fighter! The same holds true for Gimpel. I was taller and bigger than everyone in the cast, so Gimpel also had that intimidating build. But he would never have thought to fight back. Plus, Gimpel and I really do view the world differently. I do believe that most people are good at heart, and I want to see the good in everyone. Fortunately for me, I am not as gullible and I know how to self protect. You can’t hand me goat turds and tell me they are raisins, I will throw them back at you. I don’t even like raisins to begin with.
Joel: How much of the real Adam Shapiro do we see in your performance?
Adam: Ooh, tough one. As an actor, you always hope that you can really transform into your role and become someone different. However, the most successful roles are often the ones where an actor incorporates some of themselves into the performance. For all the reasons I gave in the last question, I would say that Gimpel and I have the same heart. So much of the emotion that you saw in Gimpel – is the emotion you could also see in Adam.
Joel: What personal experiences did you draw upon?
Adam: Well I sort of had to become that kid on the playground again. Because Gimpel is so childlike, I really had to draw upon my own memories of being that kid who was teased in elementary school, and also the horrible memories of when I lost my mother. I was surprised, 20 years later, how much I still remember about that.
Joel: Which is the most difficult scene for you to play?
Adam: The whole play is such an emotional roller coaster. The final scene of the play is always a little tough for me. Elke has died, having committed the ultimate betrayal, and Gimpel has had the opportunity for the ultimate revenge, which Elke then comes to him and convinces him not to commit. Gimpel then picks up a walking stick and leaves the town, telling a passerby “Go in health and forget there ever was a Gimpel”. He then ages another 50 or so years and tells of his life and travels, before having a vision of Elke in the way he always saw her, and dying with a look of wonder and curiosity. That scene in itself is an emotional workout and because of what happened right before, I feel very emotionally exposed going into it. Then, I also have to age 50 years in 2 seconds. I would say that scene is a hard one to do, and I’m very glad I get to lie down at the end of it…and die!
Joel: What scene in the show do you wish you were in, but are not?
Adam: I love to sing and dance and I don’t get to do a ton of it in the show, so I would love to be a part of the quartet that has some great songs in the second half of the show. Those guys rock it out every night, and I always kind of want to join them. And of course, I would loooove to be one of the chicken plucking ladies … I mean, who wouldn’t?
Adam: Daniella Rabbani was spectacular to work with. She is so unlike Elke in real life. That’s the funny thing. People see us onstage with her berating me and saying cruel things. In actuality, we have become great friends. She is such a focused hard worker, and I always felt very secure working with her onstage. Well, actually I guess she is like Elke in one way… she does tend to get a little raunchy (heh heh heh!) But so was the whole cast, and mostly it just ended up with us all trading a lot of dirty jokes.
Joel: Set up your song “Elkele, Elkele”.
Adam: “Elkele, Elkele” is my one and only song in the show that extols the virtues of my wife Elke. “Elkele” is a nickname – a “tsinumen” – if you will. This comes in the scene where I have brought home a large basket of food for us to share, and get so turned on by watching her eat, that I try to get her into bed. She spurns my advances, giving every excuse she can think of, (Even the old “I have a headache”. Oh Puh-lese!), and finally throws a bowl of cold water on me, which stops me in my tracks, and as I’m wiping water off my face, I start to sing, as if to say…”Wow! What a woman!”
Joel: Why is the song so heartwarming and ironic at the same time?
Adam: Gimpel uses every though he can to sing her praises. “She’s sweet as a Challah!” “Teeth like pearls! I will die happy because Elke was my wife!” Yet, she has never acted warmly towards him at all. I mean, she just threw water in his face when he tried to get her into bed…and he’s her husband! It just shows, love can be blind. When Gimpel fell, he fell hard!
Joel: What is the best advice director Moshe Yassur gave you in preparing for this role?
Adam: Oh I couldn’t possibly pick only one! Moshe knew this story and this character inside and out – and was always able to provide insight. He told me to think about how Gimpel never thought he knew the answers to anything. He always had to ask, he always had to think, and that made his reactions a bit slower than your average person. Moshe was so passionate about this piece, and that was why I wanted to work with him so much. I knew that anyone who had that much passion about a project would have wonderful insight, and I was right.
Joel: Tell us some comments that audience members have told you that “touched” you.
Adam: Let me tell you – the Folksbiene audiences have been some of the best I have ever played for. Oy! The naches (joy) that they have expressed to me has been so tremendous. I had people telling me that they used to come to the Yiddish theatre with their parents – who are no longer living – and how much they would have enjoyed it. (That one always gets me a little choked up). I’ve had people tell me that they were not familiar with Yiddish, but the performance really resonated to them. (I always tell those people, “It’s my first time with Yiddish too!”) And I guess above all, I’m always touched when audience members would tell me that they felt for my character. When I see a show, I know it’s a success if I come out really caring about one or more of the characters, so the fact that so many people kept telling me how much they felt for Gimpel, it showed me that they cared about him, which just makes me kvell. (beam with pleasure).
Joel: Why do you think audiences root for Gimpel?
Adam: I think Gimpel is the classic example of “nice guys finish last”. Audiences look at Gimpel and think, “He’s such a sweet guy and everyone is so mean to him. Give the poor man a break!” I can sometimes hear the audience reactions when things are starting to go well for Gimpel, and then all of a sudden, something happens – and their hearts drop again. By the end, they just want so much for him to get something good because he deserves it. Sadly, the good guys don’t always get what they deserve, and that’s what happens to Gimpel.
Joel: You have appeared in some other Jewish and Yiddish themed shows. What were they and who did you play?
Adam: Well, in high school I got to try my hand at Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. That was incredible and I have been wanting to do that show again ever since. A couple of years ago, I did a show called Jewsical- The Chosen Musical, which was then retitled, The Yiddish Are Coming! The Yiddish Are Coming! That was a hoot! The show poked fun at the time honored tradition of the Synagogue show. While we didn’t speak Yiddish, we spoke Yinglish, which is English peppered with Yiddish phrases. I played multiple characters including the host of the Golden Tchotchke awards, a crafty New York agent, and Mendy Bloom, the president of Temple Ben Shtiller in Philadelphia. (Actually, that was a character I based on my grandfather Murray). It was such a fun show and I got to sing a wonderful song called “Farblonjet, Farplotzed, and Farbissn” (Think “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”). I also got to prance around in the finale as a Zigfield Bubbe in a fucsia dressing gown with a giant spangled Loehmans bag on my head. (See www.adamshapiro.net for pictures).
Joel: What role would you “kill for” that you haven’t played yet?
Adam: Oh there are so many… Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, either of the two men in La Cage aux Folles, Brian in Avenue Q, and my pie in the sky dream is to play the Beast in Beauty And The Beast. I’m that guy who really just wants to play every role, especially the ones that haven’t been written yet.
Joel: Why should Jewish communities everywhere come and see Folksbiene’s productions?
Adam: Let me preface this by reiterating that I came into this show a complete novice where Yiddish Theatre is concerned. Yiddish theatre is an art form all its own. Yiddish is one of the most expressive languages there is, and it lends itself so perfectly to theatre. For Jewish communities, this is a part of our culture, every bit as much as the yearly purimshpiel that most synagogues still put on. As we move into the future – so is the Folksbiene – by searching for new and relevant material. What was so special about Gimpel Tam is that it really dealt with human nature, and not just about Jewish nature. I had many people tell me that this was the first Yiddish show they had seen – that did not end particularly happily – and it made them think. So, there you go! The Yiddish Theatre still has the ability to surprise. Above all, the Folksbiene is so passionate about what they do, and they are so dedicated to preserving this wonderful legacy. I think everyone that works with them ends up sharing a bit of that passion for Yiddish theatre. I know I do now. If you come and see a show at the Folksbiene, I think you will too! Nu?
Kids and Yiddish – Puttin’ on the Schmaltz
An interview with Zalmen Mlotek and his daughter Sarah
On December 28th, I attended a Sunday morning performance of Kids and Yiddish “Putting on the Schmaltz” at the Folksbiene. It was the final day of Chanukah, and young children, their siblings, parents and grandparents, clapped and sang along, as they were treated to a series of skits, including “Kasrilevke’s Got Talent,” a game show based on the town that Sholom Aleichem wrote about in his many stories, “The Sound of (the Hebrew letter) Lamed,” sung to Simon and Garfunkel tunes, “Silly (letter) Vov Songs,” a very funny Yiddish Dolly Parton, and a deliciously hysterical latke cooking show, which the audience flipped over. There were also dances and songs and games, including a Yiddish version of the game show Concentration.
The Hebrew letters on the dreidel taught the kids many new Yiddish words and phrases. Watching the children win prizes (large dreidels and chocolate Chanukah Gelt (coins), and hearing them singing along with the cast and their parents, was sheer nachas! (joy!). The multi-talented cast starred NYC theatre vets and co-creator and director Joanne Borts, Jenny Romaine, and young actors Josh Berk (13), who also played drums, Aaron Mayer (14), who also played the melodica, Rachel Yucht, a recent graduate of Rider University, and Sarah Mlotek (10), actress, comedienne and singer extraordinaire..
Zalmen Mlotek, the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene, and musical director of Kids and Yiddish, accompanied the cast on the keyboards, while his 10 year old daughter Sarah, a pint-sized Fanny Brice, sang and danced and mugged her way into the hearts of the audience, and this columnist. I asked father and daughter to talk about the show and their love for Yiddish.
Zalmen: Kids and Yiddish began as a program that the 3 of us created with Adrienne Cooper for the Workmen’s Circle, some 12 years ago. When I took over the artistic directorship of the Folksbiene, it was and remains my mission to bring Yiddish culture to the next generation.
Joel: What do children learn about Yiddish from the show?
Zalmen: Children learn Yiddish words in the show – by repeating them in the show itself – and learn about Jewish customs and traditions as well.
Joel: How many versions have there been of the show, and what have they been called?
Zalmen: There have been 10 versions of Kids and Yiddish. Some of the titles have been A Space Mishegas, Farmisht and Farfetched!, Ode to Oy!, and The Mazldiker Mystery Tour.
Joel: What made this new version Puttin’ on the Schmaltz different from the other versions?
Zalmen: New material! Michael Fox – our brilliant song-writer – has written several new songs for the occasion.
Joel: You have three children. How many of them have appeared in Kids and Yiddish?
Zalmen: Avram, now 21, and Elisha now 18, were in the original productions of Kids and Yiddish and are featured on the CD. This is Sarah’s 2nd year. She just turned 10.
Joel: Sarah has an incredible sense of comic timing, a beautiful voice, and great stage presence. How old was she when you began speaking to her in Yiddish?
Zalmen: Sarah, who just turned 10, grew up hearing music all her life. At the Shabbos table, we sing zmires – so she heard and participated in vocal singing from an early age. She also saw her brothers perform from the time she was an infant, so she definitely had an urge to be on the stage as well.
Joel: Are any of them considering theatre as a career?
Zalmen: Not directly. My older son – Avram – is a gifted writer and song writer- but is pursuing other fields. My middle son – Elisha – is a talented film maker, and is very interested in the film business, as well as marketing and production.
Joel: If they did consider a career in the theatre, what advice would you give them?
Zalmen: I am happy they have an appreciation for music and theater – but I am urging them to pursue other fields, while at the same time enjoying their interest in the performing arts.
Joel: Why is it so important for Jews to keep our Yiddish heritage alive for future generations?
Zalmen: I was spoken to in Yiddish by my parents and I was taught Yiddish in the afternoon at Workmen’s Circle schools. Yiddish is a vital part of the Jewish panorama that accompanied our people everywhere. The songs, the stories, the theater, the poems, are all living documents to a time of our grandparents and great grandparents.
Joel: When did you first get involved with Folksbiene?
Zalmen: I was asked to write the music for a production of A Klezmer’s Tale: Yoshke Muzikant in 1973, which starred Joseph Bulloff, and was directed by him and his wife Lyuba Kadison for the Folksbiene. Years later in 1997, I was asked to write the music for Yankl der Shmid (The Singing Blacksmith), and it was after that production that I suggested to the then Board of Directors, that they consider a changing of the guard – for a new administration to bring the Yiddish theater into the 21st Century.
Joel: How can the DC Jewish community support the Folksbiene?
Zalmen: We are now a national membership organization, so by becoming members of the Folksbiene , the DC Jewish community can support our activities. Members receive all sorts of benefits, including CDs and DVDs of the Yiddish theater that cannot be purchased in stores. We also have a traveling Troupe made up of young people who present Yiddish theater, in costumes, with music with supertitles (subtitles) that travels all over.
Joel: Why did Folksbiene decide to produce Gimpel Tam?
Zalmen: Gimpel Tam is one of I. B. Singers most popular stories, and when director Moshe Yassur presented it to us – first as a reading – we were very taken by the script and the way he set the story dramatically. Moshe brings much to the table. He is very knowledgeable, and he shared much of this knowledge with the cast throughout the rehearsal period.
Joel: The orchestra, which you music directed, was fabulous! Tell our readers what Radu Captari’s score was like.
Zalmen: The score came to me basically with melody lines and very primitive chords, which I fleshed out into the score that you hear today with the production.
Joel: What’s next on Folksbiene’s schedule for this season?
Zalmen: Shpiel Shpiel Shpiel. An evening of 3 One act plays by Murray Shisgal, who wrote Tootsie and Luv. They will be presented in the spring in Yiddish for the first time.
Joel: Theodore Bikel is performing his new one-man show Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears at Theater J in DC. How has Theodore Bikel’s efforts helped Folksbiene and helped preserve Yiddish?
Zalmen: Theo has been a champion of Yiddish for all of his career. His legendary recordings helped shape a consciousness in America for an appreciation of Jewish folk music, long before the Klezmer revival.
Joel: Will you be coming to DC to see Theo’s show?
Joel: What do you wish for the New Year?
Zalmen: Peace in Israel, financial stability in the United States, good health for my friends and family, especially my mother, who will be turning 87 in April, who is still working 3 days a week as the music archivist of the Yivo Institute in NYC, and across- the-board Jewish community support for the only Yiddish theater in America.
Sarah: I am 10 years old
Joel: When did you first learn to sing in Yiddish?
Sarah: I learned to sing in Yiddish when I was 3.
Joel: When was the first time you appeared on the stage, and do you remember what the first song you sang in front of an audience?
Sarah: The first time I was on stage is when I was 5, and I sang a song about Shavuos called “Peysakh Avek – Shevues Gekumen” (“Passover Is Over, and Shavues Is Coming”).
Joel: You have such a beautiful voice. Are you taking vocal lessons?
Sarah: No I don’t take vocal lessons at the moment.
Joel: What did it feel like being the youngest member of the cast of Kids and Yiddish?
Sarah: I really liked being the youngest of the cast, because when I’m with older people it makes me feel like I’m home with my older brothers.
Joel: What was it like to work with “older” actors and actresses?
Sarah: When I was with the older actresses – when I needed help to get a costume that’s up high – they’d help me.
Joel: How did you like working with your father in Kids and Yiddish?
Sarah: It was very nice.
Joel: What was the best advice he gave you about performing in the show?
Sarah: Sing out loud! He also gave me acting advice.
Joel: Why do you think Jewish children of all ages should learn Yiddish?
Sarah: Because they could have more languages that they could know.
Joel: What was your favorite scene in Kids and Yiddish, and what was your favorite song and costume?
Sarah: My favorite scene was “Kalt and Gor Kalt” (“Cold and Very Cold”) and my favorite song was “Un Zol Vi Vayt” (“Although the time may be far off, the day of peace and love is nearing”), and favorite costume was the letter “Hey” costume.
Joel: Do you think you will want to become a professional actress and singer?
Sarah: I don’t think so.
Joel: Why should parents bring their children to Kids and Yiddish?
Sarah: Because every kid should learn about Jewish culture.
Joel: Will we be seeing you in next year’s Kids and Yiddish?
The final two performances of Kids and Yiddish – Puttin’ on the Shmaltz” are this Sunday, January 4th at 11 AM and 2 PM, at the JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Ave. at 76th Street. Tickets are $20 for adults and $17 for children 12 and under. To purchase tickets, call the box office at (212) 213-2120 or visit www.folksbiene.org