Russian-Jewish Identity, With Circus Staging
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Russian-Jewish Identity, With Circus Staging

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

For Jews living in the Former Soviet Union, a rap on the door could spell disaster — the KGB might be about to burst in and drag them off to a terrible fate. Anna Zicer, founder and director of the Lost and Found Project of Folksbiene RU, the Russian-language division of the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene, believes the stress of living in fear and doubt is also familiar to Russian-Jewish immigrants, many of whom are still struggling to adjust to American society.

In her company’s new play, “Knock: A Journey to a Foreign Country,” inspired by the poems and children’s stories of the non-Jewish Russian writer, Daniil Kharms, the contradictions of Russian-Jewish identity are laid bare. Adapted by Alexandre Marine and Boris Zilberman, the play, which features Israeli theater and film star Gera Sandler (“Jellyfish”), begins performances this week in Greenwich Village.

Born in 1905, Kharms (the “k” is silent) rose to prominence in the 1920s for his absurd stories and poems, his surrealistic plays, and his highly eccentric personality. After being arrested in 1931 for insufficient Soviet ideology in his work, he was again arrested in 1941 and sent to a psychiatric hospital in Leningrad, where he starved to death during the two-year Nazi blockade of the city.

Zicer, 26, was born in St. Petersburg and grew up in Israel. She was named last year by The Jewish Week’s as one of the “36 Under 36” movers and shakers in Jewish life. In 2013, Lost and Found presented “Covers” (also starring Sandler), a play about a pair of Russian-Jewish families living in New York. “Knock,” she said, is “a deeper exploration of Russian-Jewish identity. Instead of being about the angles by which we see ourselves, it’s about our internal conflicts.”

Directed by Marine, “Knock” incorporates circus-style staging and movement, and, says Zicer, takes Kharms’ writing and “processes it through our own lenses as Russian Jews in America.” She predicts that while fans of Samuel Beckett will love the play, those who are used to more traditional theatrical fare will “have to step out of their brains a little bit.”

Sandler cautioned against taking the play’s title too literally. “It could be a sound that exists all the time at the margin of your awareness,” he speculated, or that “interrupts your thoughts, like the ticking of a clock.” Kharms was “never afraid to say what he was thinking,” Sandler noted; Lost and Found follows in his footsteps with bold investigations into Jewishness.

Such questions are not, Sandler added, being asked in his native land. “Israel is a Jewish answer,” he said, “not a Jewish question.”

“Knock” runs through March 22 at The Players Theatre, 115 MacDougal St. Performances are Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. For tickets, $35, call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visit lnfproject.com.

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