String Theory: Purim gets the puppet treatment
Fri, 02/13/2009
Special To The Jewish Week
Of all the holidays in the Jewish calendar, Purim is the most theatrical. Throughout the ages, Jewish communities worldwide have naturally performed the story in different ways, in accordance with their own native theatrical traditions. In 18th-century Prague, since itinerant puppeteers provided much of the entertainment seen by the common people, a marionette version of “Queen Esther” was one of the hits of the day. In the weeks leading up to Purim, New Yorkers will be privileged to see the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre perform a new version of a Queen Esther puppet play, “The Historye of Queen Esther, of King Ahasverus & of the Haughty Haman.” The production features marionettes by Prague master carver Jakub “Kuba” Krejci, American marionettes constructed from household and carpentry tools, and giant papier-mâché puppets. Along with company founder Vit Horejs, the actors/performers include Deborah Beshaw, Ron Jones, Sarah Lafferty, Theresa Linnihan and Ronny Wasserstrom. Horej, a non-Jewish émigré from Prague, founded the company in 1990, using late-19th-century Czech puppets that he found in the basement of the Jan Hus Church on East 74th Street. His productions include “Johannes Dokchtor Faust,” “Golem,” and “Once There Was a Village.” Of his play about the Rosenberg case, “The Very Sad Story of Ethel & Julius, Lovers and Spyes, and about Their Untymelie End While Sitting in a Small Room at the Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York,” which just ran last December at the Theater for the New City, Anita Gates of the New York Times wrote that Horejs had created a “first-right, thoroughly original production.” In an interview with The Jewish Week, Horejs said that “Queen Esther” is rarely performed today in Czechoslovakia, even though puppetry remains central in his native country’s culture. “Under the Communist regime, biblical stories were not kosher,” he pointed out. “Religion was frowned upon.” Among the challenges of adapting it, he said, is that the script was recorded from oral tradition using archaic German words and flowery prose. “The old puppeteers used ornate, puffed-up language because that’s how they thought nobility would speak,” he said. “They weren’t doing it to be satirical. But for us, it can create a welcome comic effect.” Producer Bonnie Stein added that one of the most interesting aspects of the Esther Play is that the puppeteers are visible at all times and play the same character as their puppet does. This creates a complex power dynamic between actor and puppet; it gives the audience multiple, simultaneous perspectives on the same character. “Themes of manipulation and dominance, which are central to the script, really take center stage,” she said. “The Historye of Queen Esther…” runs Feb. 21-March 7 at the West Side YMCA, 10 W. 64th St. For tickets, $19 ($12 children and seniors), call the box office at (212) 875-4124. Murray Schisgal Goes Yiddish Before Neil Simon, Woody Allen, and Wendy Wasserstein, there was Murray Schisgal. Inspired by the no-holds-barred humor of Lenny Bruce, Schisgal was the first to take the tragedy of mid-20th-century urban life and transmute it into farce. While he found success with plays like “Luv,” “Jimmy Shine” and “The Typists,” Schisgal’s greatest achievement came with the script for the 1983 film, “Tootsie,” which he co-wrote with Larry Gelbart, Barry Levinson and Elaine May. “Schisgal’s exploration of neurotic self-obsession,” critic David Krasner has noted, “is the bread and butter of modern American Jewish comedy.” Without Schisgal, in other words, there might be no Jerry Seinfeld or Larry David. Now Schisgal is preparing to raise the curtain on three new one-act plays about Jewish life in New York. But this time, there’s a twist — they will be presented in Yiddish. “The Pushcart Peddlers,” “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Crying” and “74 Georgia Avenue” are being collectively presented under the title “Shpiel! Shpiel! Shpiel!” at the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre. Supertitles will provide translation into both English and Russian. The three works trace the arc of Jewish life across the 20th century, from the East European immigrant experience to the present. All are being translated by Folksbiene veteran Moishe Rosenfeld. Bob Dishy, who is now performing in “Enter Laughing” at the York Theatre, will direct the first play. Tony Award-winning director Gene Saks will helm the second. And Folksbiene’s associate artistic director, Motl Didner, will take the reins for the third. In a telephone interview, Schisgal said that too many plays feature Jewish characters who have been denatured of their religion and ethnicity. “Jewish playwrights have traditionally had to write characters who never spoke of their Jewishness even though they bore the earmarks of a Jew,” he said. “It’s a great relief to me to get away from that duplicity.” The playwright summarized the overall themes of the three plays as about “three different Jews who cope with problems that are prevalent in New York; it shows their efforts to find things and they can hang onto and draw sustenance from.” He said he was amazed and heartened how many Yiddish-speaking actors showed up to audition for the plays. The challenge of maintaining a Jewish identity, Schisgal said, is a very real one for those living in what he called the “strained, shredded life in this city.” Schisgal pledges to do his part to “keep this language and ambience alive.” “Shpiel! Shpiel! Shpiel!” runs March 15-April 5 at the JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Ave. at 76th Street. For tickets, $25-$55, call the box office at (212) 213-2120.     ‘Incident at Vichy’ Is Back Arthur Miller’s one-act play about guilt and responsibility gets a revival. Although he grew up in a Jewish family in Brooklyn, Arthur Miller often skirted the use of overt Jewish themes in his plays. Other than “The Price,” which includes the character of an old Jewish furniture dealer, and “Broken Glass,” which deals with the legacy of the Holocaust, most of his characters are not, at least in any explicit way, Jewish. A prominent exception is “Incident at Vichy,” a one-act play that was first staged in 1964, and that focuses on a group of 10 French detainees awaiting inspection by German officers during the Second World War. Now The Actors Company Theatre (TACT) is staging the first major New York revival of the play since its premiere, just at the time when a new wave of Holocaust films has brought great visibility to different aspects of the Shoah, including major questions of guilt and responsibility. Directed by Scott Alan Evans, “Incident at Vichy” is based on a story that the playwright heard about a man who, finding himself about to be exposed as a Jew by the authorities in Vichy France, was saved at the last instant by a non-Jewish stranger who gave up his own life so that the Jew could go free. Miller kept asking himself why this act of self-sacrifice was so rare — why human beings would rather feel guilt than take action. In an interview with The Jewish Week, Evans called the play “not just a finger-wagging lesson, but a very tight, very dramatic, very beautiful play.” However, he conceded that the original production, which was staged by the Lincoln Center Rep (then located downtown in Washington Square), did not have a long run, despite a rave review by New York Times critic Howard Taubman, who called it “one of the most important plays of our time” and exulted that it “returns the theater to greatness.” Evans speculated that in the mid-1960s, “people weren’t ready to look at these issues too intently.” The strength of the play, he said, is that it asks basic questions about “how we cope with evil.” These questions were very much on Miller’s mind as he saw media coverage of the murder of young civil rights workers and the torturing of Vietcong prisoners. Why do we “first require human sacrifices before our guilt can be transformed into responsibility?” Miller asked pointedly in a 1965 article in The Times, “Our Guilt for the World’s Evil.” The playwright concluded that guilt is “the soul’s remorse for its own hostility. We punish ourselves to keep from being punished…” “Incident at Vichy” runs March 8-April 11 at The Actors Company Theatre (TACT), 410 W. 42nd St. For tickets, $36.25-$56.25, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200.