He was one of the greatest actors of all time, but his life and career depended on pleasing a megalomaniacal monster. In David Schneider’s new play, “Making Stalin Laugh,” Solomon Mikhoels struggles to keep the Moscow State Jewish Theater (known as GOSET) afloat at a perilous time when policies of state were in constant flux; notably unstable were policies toward the arts and the Jews, whom the Soviets alternately lauded for their opposition to Fascism and reviled for their ties to a foreign homeland. New Yiddish Rep presents the play this Sunday and Monday in a workshop production in the East Village.
Directed by Allen Lewis Rickman, “Making Stalin Laugh” features the Israeli TV star Gera Sandler as Mikhoels; Elena Shmulenson plays his love interest, Nina. Performed in a mix of Yiddish, Russian and English (with supertitles provided), the play begins in the 1920s, when GOSET moves into a theater near the Kremlin, hires Marc Chagall to design its sets and costumes, and with Mikhoels in leading roles, begins staging major Yiddish productions ranging from “Tevye the Dairyman” to “King Lear.”
But when Stalin turns virulently anti-Semitic after the Second World War, he turns against GOSET, and in 1948 has Mikhoels — who had publicly expressed his support for a Jewish state in Palestine — run over by a car to make his death seem accidental. GOSET is quickly shut down, and in 1952, in a single night, 13 prominent Jewish writers are dispatched — the subject of Nathan Englander’s 2012 play, “The Twenty-Seventh Man.”
Schneider, 51, who resides in London, is best known as a screen actor and writer. While studying for a doctorate in Yiddish at Oxford University, he learned about GOSET; he later read Jeffrey Veidlinger’s path-breaking study, “The Moscow State Yiddish Theater” (Indiana University Press, 2006). “Making Stalin Laugh” premiered last year at JW3, the new JCC in the leafy north London suburb of Hampstead.
In an interview, Schneider told The Jewish Week that Mikhoels and his actors “had to toe the party line,” but that line kept moving — “if you got it wrong, even if it was right two weeks ago, you could be taken away and killed.” Mikhoels also had a massive ego; Schneider described him as a “dictatorial, flawed, charismatic, selfish genius.”
Rickman sees Mikhoels’ tragic flaw as his “total faith in the Soviet system.” When the troupe toured Berlin in 1948, they could have defected to the West, but he insisted on returning to Russia.
“All of these performers came of age in a Czarist Russian hellhole,” Rickman noted. “But then the Soviets eliminated all of that. They thought that the system supported them and allowed them to do great things” — until Stalin’s true colors emerged and the streets ran with Jewish blood.
“Making Stalin Laugh” will be presented at 7 p.m. on Sunday, May 17 and Monday, May 18 at Theatre 80, 80 St. Marks Pl. For tickets, $25, call (888) 596-1027 or visit newyiddishrep.org.