|Rebecca Keren as Vashti, below, and Stav Meishar in the air. Michael Priest|
The Folksbiene: National Yiddish Theater has hit a home run with its new production of “The Megile of Itzik Manger.”
Credit has to go to an inspired production design team (set and costume designer Jenny Romaine, lighting designer Natalie Robin, production stage manager Alex Brouwer) and terrific direction by Moti Didner, the Folksbiene’s associate artistic director. They have reimagined the classic Purimspiel as a small-town circus musical, filled with acrobatics, masks, puppets large and small, sideshow sets, whirling dance numbers, double entendres, proletarian politics, and a variety of other elements that keep the ear and eye delighted throughout.
A renowned Yiddish writer and poet in Warsaw between the wars, Itzik Manger fled Poland in 1938 and after a few stops landed in London, where he lived for more than a decade. In the mid-fifties, he moved to Israel and stayed there until his death in 1969. Despite the “language wars” in Israel, which Yiddish lost decisively, Manger achieved considerable success there, and his “Songs of the Megillah” was a hit in Tel Aviv in 1965. Two years later, it transferred to New York and played on Broadway as “The Megile of Itzik Manger,” starring the Burstein family, stars of the Yiddish theater.
Manger’s contribution to Jewish literature was to crack open the shell of commentary that had mummified traditional biblical stories for more than a millennium and present them in a contemporary style and context. In his megillah, Queen Esther has a boyfriend who is a downtrodden member of the working class, and Shushan has been removed to Eastern Europe. Haman is a typical Polish anti-Semite and Vashti a feminist heroine. Her hanging feels genuinely tragic even though it leads to Esther’s triumph.
The Folksbiene production, which goes back to an all-Yiddish script, uses the music of Israeli composer Dov Seltzer, which is played by a rousing five-person klezmer band led by Dmitri Slepovitch. An attractive and talented cast bring energy and pizzazz to the many musical numbers – the show is almost all sung – and choreographer Merete Muenter makes great use of the stage at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, seeming to fill it with a blur of prancing feet. But it is the costumes, props, and puppets designed by Jenny Romaine that set the show apart. Romaine is a founding member of the Great Small Works collective and “has been making socially embedded Yiddish spectacle for over two decades,” according to the program notes.
If this is an example of socially embedded Yiddish spectacle, we want more of it.
Stephen Mo Hanan plays the king with vaudevillian exuberance, and his gleeful rendition of “S’a Mekhaye” (How Sweet It Is) starts the audience clapping enthusiastically. Shane Baker’s narrator Loyfer is a wonderful guide to the action and Stacey Harris is a beautifully shrewd Esther. Jonathan Brody plays Mordechai and Haman both, and switches easily between the roles. The great masks and costumes help distinguish between them as well.
One qualification is that the supertitles in English and Russian are harder to read than usual; a larger size and sharper contrast would help a lot. But even if you can’t always read every word, the show’s vitality carries you along. With so much fun on stage, who needs to understand the words?
“The Megile of Itzik Manger” runs through May 12 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center at Lexington Avenue and 25th Street in Manhattan.