Yiddish theatre in New York around the turn of the century was vibrant: in the small Bowery theaters, Jews of all nationalities and branches of Judaism came to watch shows full of emotion and sorrow, joy and exuberance, all in the tongue common to European Jews: Yiddish.
Theater J, with the first full production of its Yiddish Theater Lab has endeavored to bring this forgotten world into sharper focus: though Mirele Efros has been produced on stages all over the world since its premiere in 1898, it has never had an English language translation until now, and this translation by Nahma Sandrow, The Jewish Queen Lear, is its world premiere.
In the late 1870s, Jewish immigrants began the first of over fifty years of passage through the gates of Ellis Island. Many were bound for further ports, but many more stayed and flourished in New York City, and created mirror images of the lives they had known in Russia, Poland, and other countries. A Jewish village within the city was established, and parts of it remain in the city to this day.
Live theater and music, imported by actors fleeing Tsarist Russia, became a haven for many, and the necessity of finding a common tongue in which to portray Jewish life resulted in many stories, from Shakespeare to more modern works, being transcribed into Yiddish. The heyday of Yiddish theatre, from the late 1890s to the early 1920s, saw works crafted by talented playwrights, many of them with themes common to Jewish life. Most were melodramas, with outsized characters, overblown dialogue, unlikely plot twists, and, of course, a happy ending amidst the hardships. But some of these works, like Jacob Gordin’s Mirele Efros, or The Jewish Queen Lear, were well crafted pieces, drawn from a Shakespearean theme yet modified to fit the format audiences hungered for.
The Jewish Queen Lear
closes April 7, 2019
Details and tickets
Though based loosely on Shakespeare’s King Lear, Gordin rewrote much of the plot; the aging Lear is instead a widowed Jewish matron, an astute businesswoman, head of her household and a force to be reckoned with. While Lear is elderly, Mirele Efros (Valerie Leonard) is still full of strength; Lear’s three daughters are instead two sons, Yosele and Daniel (Christoper Warren, Charlie Trepany) . Instead of dividing her kingdom as Lear does, Mirele tries to keep her hard-won empire intact, but the emergence of a scheming daughter-in-law (Healy Knight) and her two greedy parents (Karl Kippola as Nokhemste, Tonya Beckman as Khan-Devoye) spin her world out of focus. Yet her oldest allies stand by her (Frank X as Shalmen and Sue Jin Yong as Makhle), and unlike Lear, there is a happy ending.
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There are reasons to revive such a historic work, not the least of which is the fact that Yiddish theatre greatly influenced early silent movies, both in acting forms and plotlines; and silents, in turn, influenced and evolved into the plays, movies and media we still see today.
This modern translation does a fair justice to the work: at times funny, moody, somber and with a sermon or two built in, it is at heart a melodrama, but one of more scope than most.
Jacob Gordin has written a surprisingly feminist protagonist for the times; Valerie Leonard plays her character with clarity. Mirele sees through her adversaries, and, though wearied by her family, never capitulates to them, instead, surprisingly, she simply removes herself from the tumult. Leonard is adept at showing this strong woman who keeps her honor while losing nearly everything else.
Two other actors in the cast must be commended: as Makhle, her maidservant, Sue Jin Song is really the heart of the show; along with her superb comedic timing, Song also keeps the ticktock of some overly long scenes from becoming too one-note. As Shalmen, Mirele’s business manager, Frank X has the bearing of a Lear in his prime, and brings gravitas to a few scenes that would otherwise be nearly unwatchable.
Scenic design (Andrew R Cohen) is remarkable, made all the more so because Theater J isn’t at home these days: due to its renovation at their 16th street theater, this production found a home at Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center. The theater itself is on the small side, but that hasn’t stopped Cohen from wowing us midway through the first act with Mirele’s imposing parlor, which arises out of the squalor of a middling hotel room in the aptly named town of Slutsk. The only sour note to the set was the startling, eyewatering green of the paneled walls. My best guess is that ‘green is for greed’, but having seen Cohen’s fine work in other productions, I was left wondering if someone else chose the color.
So that’s the best of the show, those three actors, the set, and the original script. Alas, though, this production is as uneven as uneven can be.
The Jewish Queen Lear is worth the time and effort to show it to us with a well staged production- but not by making it ‘new’, if that was the intent of director Adam Immerwahr in mixing periods.
The costuming by Ivania Stack has different characters wear a variety of periods spanning a century or more: while Mirele is in long 1890s-inspired attire, the father in law wears a 1960s era plaid sport coat, the daughter in law an immodest white satin strap top and pants, the mother in law looks vaguely 1980s with that pink jacket, and the sons are in peculiar assemblages of knit sweaters and a humdrum 1990s suit. I’ve seen shows with ‘period mixtures’ before- sometimes this can be done to wondrous effect, but this isn’t one of those times. If that’s what the production team was trying for, it missed by a mile, and it also jarred with the language and the mood of the script, to no small detriment.
Props (Pam Weiner) were likewise bizarre- center stage, above the mantel, hangs a large portrait of Mirele’s late husband, a gentleman in 1890s frockcoat. Yet there’s a three-tiered, distinctly modern floorlamp right below him- was that on purpose? And to what end? And why does Mirelle write down accounts in her small notebook, as befits an 1890s business owner, yet on the desk in front of her sits, of all things, an Apple laptop. The first scene is all Victorian shabby furniture in that Slutsk hotel room, and yet Makle enters with a modern roll-on suitcase. It’s maddening, and to no purpose- it only jars the eye and makes the mind wander away from the script.
For director Immerwahr – and Theater J’s commendable Yiddish Theater Lab, I’d say – show us what made audiences love the show- the highs and lows of the characters’ turmoils, the broad acting of melodrama, the impossible twists and turns of soap opera. We can still see, if we are allowed, what they saw: ourselves in the lives of these characters, a mirror held up.
Something else is missing from this production: the audience. Yiddish theater isn’t at heart a dumbshow, played before a silent crowd: turn of the century audiences, mostly families, booed, and laughed, and scolded, and cried in a way modern audiences don’t any longer. We’ve perhaps lost that ability, but a show like The Jewish Queen Lear fairly shouts out for it, with its to-the-audience-only soliloquies and overblown speeches. It’s not a stretch to say that given the chance, and given permission before the curtain rises, an audience could chime in, just like in the old days. How much fun would that be? Director’s choice, sure, but look at the script: it’s missing that now.
I hope Theater J sees Jacob Gordin’s script as a chance to, so far as is possible, bring us back something of Yiddish theatre. Call it a do-over, and take another shot at it. It’s a worthwhile cause, even if this particular production falls short of the mark.
The Jewish Queen Lear (Mirele Efros) by Jacob Gordin . Translated from the Yiddish by Nahma Sandrow . Director: Adam Immerwahr . Cast: Valerie Leonard as Mirele Efros; Christoper Warren as Yosele; Charlie Trepany as Daniel; Sue Jin Song as Mahkle; Frank X as Shalmen; Healy Knight as Sheyndele; Karl Kippola as Nokhemste; Tonya Beckman as Khan-Dvoyre; Shane Wall as Shloymele; Adana Dodds Sharp as Cantor . Ensemble: Benjamiin Eneman; KJ Moran; Kylie Navarro; Kate Oelkers; Emma Stern . Set Design: Andrew R Cohen . Costume Design: Ivania Stack . Lighting Design: Colin K Bills . Sound Design: Veronica J Lancaster . Props Design: Pam Weiner . Music Director: James Khoury . Fight Choreographer: Cliff Williams III . Stage Manager: Anthony O Bullock . Asst Stage Managers: Leigh Robinette, Joey Blakely . Produced by Theater J . Reviewed by Jill Kyle-Keith.