Beware a woman with a past! Such is the lesson of a double bill of plays arriving downtown from Israel this week, based on a pair of classic short stories from Jewish tradition by Nobel Prize-winning authors. In the first, a dramatization of I. B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” a credulous orphan is persuaded by his wife, the town prostitute, that he is the father of her children by other men. In the second, a dance-theater piece inspired by S.Y. Agnon’s “The Lady and the Peddler,” a traveling Jewish salesman moves in with a bewitching customer only to realize that she is a vampire who has devoured her previous mates.
“Gimpel the Fool,” translated by Saul Bellow, was Singer’s first story to appear in English. The surrealistic, absurdist story has been dramatized before, most recently in a 2001 version performed in New York by David Margulies. The new adaptation is presented by Canadian-born Howard Rypp, the founder of the Nephesh Theatre in Tel Aviv. Rypp has performed “Gimpel” in theater festivals from Edinburgh to St. Petersburg.
“People aren’t sure if Gimpel is a fool or a saint,” Rypp told The Jewish Week. “He naively believes everything that people tell him.” But by the end, he pointed out, Gimpel “needs to prepare for the next life,” and the character’s innocence, which enables him to believe with perfect faith, may finally serve him well.
“The Lady and the Peddler, ” directed by Geula Jeffet Attar, comes from the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv. It features the director’s husband, Victor Attar, as the male lead and Ilana Cohen from the Inbal Dance Theater as the female lead. Dubbed by critic Irene Backalenick as the “Alfred Lunt-Lynne Fontanne of Israel,” the husband-and-wife team has appeared many times at La MaMa with works by Motti Lerner, Hanoch Levin and other playwrights.
In a joint interview, the Attars noted that in Agnon’s story the femme fatale presents herself as a Christian, and the sexual relationship between her and the peddler raises the specter of his abandoning his Jewish identity. In the new theatrical version, the lady is from Yemen, and the production incorporates both Christian and Yemenite Jewish liturgical music. “We took the lady to a more exotic place,” Victor explained. “She uses belly dance to seduce the peddler.”
A major challenge in staging both works, Rypp pointed out, is “capturing the intensity” of worlds in which demons and dybbuks lurk around every corner. He sees the plays as “startling fables” that explore the nature of cruelty. In both, Rypp concluded, “people find themselves in the clutches of someone who’s doing them wrong.”
“Gimpel the Fool” and “The Lady and the Peddler” run through Jan. 29 at La MaMa E.T.C., 74A E. Fourth St. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. There is an added show on Sunday, Jan. 29 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, $18 ($13 for students and seniors), call the box office at (212) 475-7710 or visit www.lamama.org.