He may not have achieved the popularity of his fellow Yiddish writer, Sholom Aleichem, but I. L. Peretz (1852-1915) was also a heavyweight of Yiddish literature at the turn of the 20th century. While the author of the “Tevye” stories was known for his folksy brand of humor, Peretz was inspired by chasidic folklore to express the mystical resonances in Jewish tradition.
On the heels of its crowd-pleasing revue, “Fyvush Finkel Live!” the Folksbiene, now in its 96th year, switches gears to present two cosmic, allegorical plays based on the works of Peretz. “A Gigl Fun a Nigun” (The Metamorphosis of a Melody) stars celebrated French mime and performance artist Rafael Goldwaser. It is preceded by “Di Tsvey Brider” (The Two Brothers), a work of dance-theater choreographed by Rebecca Warner and directed by Motl Didner, the Folksbiene’s associate artistic director. Both plays are in the Symbolist style that characterized late-19th century French culture.
Born in Argentina, Goldwaser spent most of his early career in Israel. He was trained in mime and movement by the legendary French artist Jacques Lecoq, who also taught American choreographer Julie Taymor, British actor and director Steven Berkoff and the Swiss dancers of the Mummenschanz troupe. Goldwaser incorporates acrobatics, martial arts and masks in his work, in a style drawn partly from the ritualistic Noh Theater of Japan.
Since 1992, Goldwaser has directed a theater in Strasbourg, France, called Le Theatre en L’Air, known in Yiddish as the Luft Teater. (The company’s name, Theater of the Air, is inspired by the Yiddish concept of the luftmensch, the dreamer who drifts from job to job, with no visible means of support.) For the last few years, Goldwaser has toured Europe with “S’Brent” (It’s Burning), three comic monologues based on Aleichem’s works; he performed it for one night only in 2006 at the Folksbiene.
His newest work, “A Gigl Fun a Nigun,” directed by Pascal Holtzer with an original score by Jean-Raymond Gelis, had its New York premiere this past summer at the Fringe Festival. It is an hour-long multimedia solo work about the mystical changes wrought on a catchy song as it travels through time and space.
In an interview from Strasbourg, Goldwaser told The Jewish Week that the idea of the transformation of a tune springs from Reb Nachman of Bratslav’s kabbalistic ideas about the use of both sound and silence to communicate with God. Goldwaser’s ambition, he said, is to “renew the Yiddish theater through the musicality of the Yiddish language,” using his body to reflect the “twists and turns, the ups and downs, and the sudden changes and emphases of Yiddish.”
The curtain raiser, “Di Tsvey Brider,” features an original musical score by Dmitri “Zisl” Slepovich. It is inspired by a short story by Peretz about two brothers who live and work together in harmony until the older brother is seduced by a serpent into believing that he needs to take advantage of his brother’s labors in order to enrich himself.
According to Didner, the play is on one level about the depredations of capitalism, but can also be seen as showing the “emotional, sexual and psychical maturation that we go through in leaving childhood behind.” Like “A Gigl Fun a Nigun,” the director said, “Di Tsvey Brider” takes us from the realm of fairy tale to the shattered reality of a changing world.
“New Worlds: A Celebration of I.L. Peretz” runs through Nov. 21 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, 55 Lexington Ave. (25th Street between Lexington and Third). Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 6 p.m. For tickets, $55, call the box office at (646) 312-5073.