Growing up may be especially difficult these days, but it was probably never a piece of cake. For Mir’l, an adolescent orphan girl in Peretz Hirshbein’s harrowing early-20th-century Yiddish play, “On the Other Side of the River,” (Oyf Yener Zayt Taykh), coming of age means coping with death, natural disaster and sexual violence. Little wonder that she dreams of love and a better life, even in the midst of utter chaos and confusion. The play begins previews this weekend in Soho.
Born near Grodno (now part of Poland) in 1880, Hirshbein was inspired by the Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, known for Symbolist plays that focused more on mood than on plot in their evocation of feelings and states of consciousness. While Hirshbein had begun by writing plays in Hebrew, he switched to Yiddish after forming his own theater troupe in Odessa in 1908. “On the Other Side of the River,” written in a Symbolist mode, was his first Yiddish play; he went on to pen many popular dramas, including “Green Fields” (Grine Felder). He died in Los Angeles in 1948.
Directed by Shannon Sindelar, “River,” which will be presented in English, takes place as a massive winter flood carries off the cabin in which Mir’l (Jane Cortney) is living with her grandfather, Menashe (David Greenspan), and grandmother, Yakhne (Christine Siracusa). As the grandfather freezes to death, a menacing Stranger (David Arkema) appears and forcibly embraces Mir’l, and then fills her head with fantasies of palaces filled with jewels on the opposite bank of the river.
Mir’l, who keeps trying to tear the mysterious amulet that she has inherited from her mother from around her neck, must decide if she will pursue the Stranger or take her own plunge into the unknown. The cascading floodwaters are represented by stretchy white transparent fabrics; the ominous electronic music was composed by Erik T. Lawson.
Ellen Perecman is the founder of the New Worlds Theatre Project; she produced Hirshbein’s “Carcass” (Neveyle) last fall. In an interview, she noted that Hirshbein’s plays fascinate her because of their vivid, poetic language and frequent biblical references. Perecman calls “River,” which she translated for this production, a “dark fairy tale filled with different kinds of tensions,” especially the vulnerable protagonist’s feeling of “being caught between two worlds” — the relatively safe and secure world of childhood and the unpredictable, often terrifying one of adulthood.
“On the Other Side of the River,” begins previews Nov. 29 and opens Dec. 4 at HERE, 145 Sixth Ave. (entrance on Dominick Street). Performances are Thursday – Saturday at 7 p.m., Monday at 7 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. For tickets, $18, call OvationTix at (212) 352-3101 or visit ovationtix.com.