Subtlety was never a hallmark of the Yiddish theater. Born of the intensity of diasporic Jewish life, it was bold, brash and in-your-face, built on an unstable, unpredictable mix of comedy, music, dance and drama.
For a glimpse of its sheer physicality and verve, one could hardly do better than the Folksbiene’s latest show, “The Megile of Itzik Manger,” a Purim play turned musical extravaganza. If “Megile” doesn’t sweep you off your feet, chances are, nothing will. It concludes a three-week run this weekend at the Baruch College Performing Arts Center.
First performed in Israel in the 1960s, and then produced on Broadway (starring the legendary Burstein family in both productions), “Megile” is a kind of pre-Mel Brooks satirical take on the Third Reich. Based on Manger’s inspired “midrashic” Yiddish retellings of the Purim stories, transplanted to interwar Poland, the 80-minute, intermissionless show, directed by Motl Didner, transforms the familiar tales of political intrigue into sparkling, screwball romantic comedy. With a shimmering, effervescent score by the Romanian-born composer Dov Seltzer, the delightful material is given a new twist in the Folksbiene production, which uses a circus theme replete with masks, puppets, acrobats and vaudeville-style antics.
Starring Stephen Ho Hanan, along with a young and energetic supporting cast, the toe-tapping and ceaselessly inventive “Megile” pumps theatrical helium into the room, lifting its audience’s spirits sky-high.
Most of the numbers are performed by the entire ensemble, which features Shane Baker (whose Yiddish vaudeville shows have become a staple of off-Broadway entertainment in New York) as the narrator, Jonathan Brody as both Mordke and Homen (Mordechai and Haman), Stacey Harris as Esther, Andrew Keltz as Fastrigosse (Esther’s jilted lover), and Rebecca Keren as Vashti. All revolve around Hanan’s King Akheshveyresh, whose pomposity and vainglory make him a figure ripe for delicious satire. (While the show is entirely in Yiddish, there are supertitles in both English and Russian.)
Jenny Romaine, who designed the production, was one of the creative talents behind “Kids and Yiddish,” the (sadly defunct) winter holiday series that introduced children to the mameloshen. For “Megile,” Romaine brings her deep experience in agit prop street theater, juggling, and puppetry — including, most strikingly, the giant, huge-headed variety, made famous by the radical political Bread and Puppet company in Vermont — to the fore.
Cleverness and creativity abound in “Megile,” from the low-budget but colorful and elaborate costumes (my favorite was Vashti’s cardboard, sparkly headdress) to the simple but evocative sets (like a painted tapestry of courtiers at the king’s banquet, with holes through which the performers stick their heads). And I loved the royal bed, which is on a platform about 20 feet to the side of the stage; it is vertical, so that the king and queen are actually standing while giving the illusion of lying in bed.
Romaine keeps tossing ideas out, seeing what will stick. The performers are in constant motion, whether juggling scarves, making painted birds on poles swoop around the stage, or doing handstands. It was thus almost a welcome change of pace to have a solo number, such as Vashti’s heart-breaking ballad, “Vashti’s Song of Protest” as the disgraced queen prepares to be hung, performed in front of an acrobat who twirls in the air around tall vertical bolts of cloth before ending upside down and motionless.
In an opposite style is Mo Hanan’s solo turn in his jubilant song, “How Sweet it Is,” which celebrates the king’s escape from the plot that would have claimed his life; Hanan’s prancing about the stage reminded me of his off-Broadway performance several years ago as Al Jolson, with a similar preening, cocksure mien. Mo Hanan seems to be having almost as much fun as when he played the Major General in the Folksbiene’s exuberant 2006 Yiddish version of “The Pirates of Penzance.”
But the biggest star of the evening is indisputably the klezmer-style music — soaring, plaintive love ballads, ingenious satirical numbers, and plangent, poetic songs drawn from Yiddish folk tales. The on-stage band delivers rousing renditions of a score that simply deserves to be better known; Seltzer is a phenomenally talented composer, who has written symphonic works as well as scores for more than 40 films. At a recent matinee, I found myself sitting next to the composer himself, who had just flown in from Rome. It was a particular pleasure to talk to him about what he felt characterized Yiddish theater — the propensity of Jews, he said, “not to take themselves too seriously.”
At the end of the show, Seltzer was invited backstage, where the cast and crew feted him with vodka, hamantashen, and chocolate cake. I got swept up in the general merriment, and reflected ruefully that my already compromised critical distance (given that I have known so many of the Folkbiene’s principals for years) had been utterly undermined.
And yet, part of the dynamic of the Yiddish theater was its very collapse of the boundaries between performers and spectators; the latter often felt free to talk back to the actors, to bring them food backstage, and, in general, to treat the entire theatrical evening as a kind of communal free-for-all. An audience member at the performance I attended had been overheard saying the show was “like a really fun wedding,” and the cast savored the deliciousness of that remark and the degree of audience involvement that it implied.
What’s a self-respecting critic to do, in the face of so much gaiety, gladness, and good will, but simply to take up the cause of Yiddish and join the parade?
“The Megile of Itzik Manger” runs through Sunday, May 12, at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, 55 Lexington Ave. (entrance on 25th St., between Third and Lexington). Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 9:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. For tickets, $55, call (866) 811-4111 or visit nationalyiddishtheatre.org.