On the Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century, the Yiddish stage was such a staple of Jewish life that audiences were said to consume “broyt mit teater” — bread slathered with theater. Next week, the only Yiddish theater company that still survives from that era, the Folksbiene (now called the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene) serves up Kulturfest, a multi-course offering of Yiddish music, theater, film and dance, including Yiddish stage companies from around the world.
Among Kulturfest’s theatrical offerings are Sholom Aleichem’s “Wandering Stars,” presented by the State Jewish Theatre of Romania; “The Kishka Monologues,” a culinary adventure staged by Yiddishshpiel-the Yiddish Theatre of Israel; “Ek Velt,” produced by Zaftik, a Yiddish troupe from Australia; Bonjour Monsieur Chagall,” a musical presented by the Kaminska Jewish Theatre of Warsaw, Poland; “My First Sony,” featuring Israeli actor Roy Horovitz; and “The Mar Vista,” a dance/theater work by performance artist Yehuda Hyman.
In addition, Polish-born Lea Koenig-Stolper, dubbed the First Lady of Israeli Theater, will perform an evening of songs and stories; and Ben Gonshor’s play about Paul Robeson, “When Blood Ran Red,” the winner of the Folksbiene’s first annual Yiddish playwriting contest, will have a staged reading. Most of these shows will take place at the Abrons Cultural Center (Henry Street Settlement), the site of the Folksbiene’s first performance in 1915, at a time when there were 15 Yiddish theaters in the city.
Brynna Wasserman, the executive director of the Folksbiene, organized two international festivals when she headed the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre in Montreal — festivals that included many of the same theatrical troupes. But Kulturfest is her most ambitious festival to date, with more than 30 countries represented and a day-long symposium, organized by NYU’s Skirball Department of Hebrew at Judaic Studies, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which is the Folksbiene’s new home.
In an interview, Wasserman told The Jewish Week that the overarching purpose of the festival is to look back on the last century of Yiddish theater in New York and prepare for the next one. “We seek to relate Jewish influence to the culture of the city, country and world,” she said.
Horovitz’s one-man show, “My First Sony,” is based on a bestselling novel by the Israeli writer Benny Barbash. Directed by Dafna Widenfeld-Nagler, the play, which Horovitz has performed in Hebrew since 1996, is about the unraveling of a dysfunctional Israeli family, which an overweight 11-year-old boy, Yotam (played by Horovitz), obsessively documents with his tape recorder.
“My First Sony,” which has toured Israel and been performed in Canada, South Africa, Australia, and Europe (as well at universities ranging from Harvard and Yale to Cairo) is unusual in that much of the “dialogue” is provided by recorded actors. When it ran in 2011 in Johannesburg, South Africa, critic Gayle Edmunds of the City Press called it a play about “how children process information and read situations, sometimes too literally, sometimes with piercingly accurate analysis.”
Those looking for a splashy musical may gravitate to “Bonjour Monsieur Chagall” from Poland, directed by David Szurmiej. The play, which will be performed this year in Warsaw as part of the 12th Annual Isaac Bashevis Singer Festival, was developed by Szurmiej’s father, Szymon, who founded the Kaminska Jewish Theatre and who once met Marc Chagall during a visit to Paris. The production brings the painter’s vibrant artworks to life, using them as the springboard for extravagant, nostalgic costumes, sets, music and movement. It premiered in Warsaw in the mid-1970s and ran there for a decade.
Szurmiej told The Jewish Week that Singer’s works “could have been painted by Chagall,” referring to the “nonexistent but colorful world” that the painter created. Chagall, he pointed out, “took Jewish life out of the shtetl and made it universal.” At a time when so many Polish non-Jews are discovering their Jewish roots, Szurmiej said (noting that before the Second World War, the overall population of Warsaw was almost one-third Jewish), Yiddish theater is occupying an increasingly important niche in his native country.
But not all the Kulturfest productions come from abroad. One home-grown production is Hyman’s “The Mar Vista,” which was developed at the 14th Street Y’s LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture. Hyman was last seen in “The Mad 7,” a dance piece based on the writing of Reb Nachman of Bratslav. He turns autobiographical in “The Mar Vista,” which takes its name from the seaside neighborhood in West Los Angeles where he grew up as the son of a Turkish Jewish mother (Amanda Schussel), who was a dancer, and a Polish Jewish father (Ron Kagan), who came from a family of tailors.
Hyman said that one of the challenges in creating the piece, which incorporates movement, gesture, spoken word and ritual, was “grappling with the inconsistencies in the lives of our parents, and with their sexuality.” His father “lost everyone in the Holocaust — he never saw his parents and siblings again.” His mother “needed to be by the sea,” as an integral part of her exotic personality. Hyman, who has moved back and forth repeatedly between New York and Los Angeles throughout his adult life, feels a similar need to “be by the water to connect with my ancestors,” he noted.
Whether as a form of ancestor worship, cultural exploration or rollicking entertainment, Kulturfest promises to satisfy many different agendas for performers and attendees alike. Indeed, with such a plethora of theatrical offerings on tap, the Folksbiene hopes to attract large numbers of both Jews and non-Jews to the productions. “We have the fefer [pepper] and zaltz [salt],” Wasserman concluded. “We have all the ingredients. Now what we need are the audiences.”
Kulturfest runs from June 14-21 at various venues in Manhattan. (The theatrical offerings are co-sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York and Capital One Bank.) For tickets (most of which are $18) and information, call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visit kulturfestnyc.org.