“On the Other Side of the River” opens promisingly: eerie bell-like music plays softly, and the set, three flats covered with stiffened, rippling gray gauze, seems to suggest a cave receding in the distance – until the lights come up, transforming them into a river, in a beautiful union of lighting and scenic design.
Peretz Hirshbein wrote his first play in Yiddish around 1906. It is translated into English by Ellen Perecman for New Worlds Theater Project, a company devoted to bringing new life to neglected Yiddish plays of the 20th century.
It’s night. A grandfather and his granddaughter, Mir’l, listen to the river rising in a storm – the same river that carried away Mir’l’s father the night that she was born, the night on which her mother died. With this many parents lost in one night, one begins to worry. Mir’l wears a protective amulet, but it’s lost in the flood. Their little house is flooded, and they seek higher ground. At the end of the first act, the grandfather has frozen to death.
The second act shows Mir’l’s meeting with a handsome stranger who clasps her to him for warmth, saving both their lives. He tells her tales of palaces covered with jewels, and disappears in the morning. In the third act, Mir’l is alienated from her grandmother; she has been given another amulet which she tears off herself. She moans about seeing her grandfather’s blind eyes and missing the handsome stranger. When the river threatens to flood again she seems to hear him, and, expecting to be reunited with him, she throws herself in the river.
Obviously this play frustrates any wish for coherent narrative. The largest element is the river, and its first audience in Odessa in 1908 would have remembered overwhelming surges of violence: the pogroms of 1905 and 1906 had killed as many as 1000 Jewish Odessans. Perhaps, then, there is an element of recollection in the river’s force. Mir’l, however, though she is tossed about by the river, manages her own destruction, and throws her life away with a spooky joyfulness that is both irritating and frustrating. Like the young bride in S. An-Sky’s “Dybbuk” of six years later, she seems haunted; but if there is symbolism here, it’s entirely opaque.
She is played with heartfelt conviction by Jane Cortney; David Greenspan is the rather stately blind grandfather, who moves like a mime or a tai-chi instructor; David Arkema gives the Stranger a warm and energetic performance; and Christine Siracusa is the underwritten grandmother. Patrick Rizzotti, Nick Solyom, and Erik T. Lawson designed and composed the scenery, lighting, and sound, the most effective elements of the production.
Elizabeth Denlinger curates a collection of rare books and manuscripts at the New York Public Library and is at work on a novel about a boarding school in 1955.