‘Shlemiel the First’ a charmer

‘Shlemiel the First’ a charmer

Yet, alas, some of its Yiddish flavor is lost in translation

A scene from “Shlemiel the First”

With a new executive director, the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene is heading in a different direction. Both its productions this season are in English, and that is a big change right there.

Executive director Bryna Wasserman is no stranger to Yiddish theater, certainly. For years, she led the Montreal Yiddish theater named after her mother, Dora Wasserman. It was there that she built relationships with other theater companies, and where she developed a particular interest in working with young people.

Wasserman said in a recent interview with The Jewish Standard that she wanted to build bridges to a diverse audience in New York, as well. “We are looking to the future to make this a Jewish theater,” said Folksbiene trustee Judith Rosen, “not just a Yiddish theater.” There is no plan to change the theater company’s name, Rosen insisted.

The Folksbiene’s main stage production this season represents its new focus. The company has teamed up with the classic repertory company, Theatre for a New Audience, to present a revival of “Shlemiel the First,” a musical based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer play, adapted by Robert Brustein with music by Hankus Netsky (founder of the Klezmer Conservatory Band) and lyrics by Arnold Weinstein. Folksbiene’s artistic director, Zalmen Mlotek (a resident of Teaneck), did the arrangements, contributed additional music, and conducts the lively klezmer band that accompanies the show.

The musical is set in Chelm, a shtetl famous for its fools. In Chelm, down is up and black is white, and everyone likes it that way. Of course, Chelm has its rabbi and his court of sages who spend their days pondering such deep questions as how the local millionaire can avoid death. Since he is willing to pay handsomely for the secret, they need to find an answer. It is a lowly synagogue functionary, however, who comes up with a solution: Since no rich man has ever died in Chelm, the old man has nothing to worry about.

Shlemiel, the functionary (he is the shames, or beadle), is just as simpleminded as the rest of the folks in Chelm. He sets off on a long journey to spread the word of the rabbi’s great wisdom, but he becomes befuddled and gets turned around early in his journey. He does not know that, however, so when he ends up back home, he believes that he has arrived in an entirely different Chelm, one that looks amazingly just like his own town. Indeed, it even has a house in it that looks just like his own house, in which there lives a woman who looks exactly like his wife and who has children that look like his own Gittel and Mottel. This amazing discovery adds to his wonderment.

Michael Iannucci plays the sweet-tempered Shlemiel, and he has the perfect moon-shaped visage and lumpy body for the character. His wife, Tryna Ritza, is played by Amy Warren, who was nominated for various awards for her work in the highly original revival of Elmer Rice’s “Adding Machine.” In this Chelm, charmingly recreated at the NYU Skirball Center by scenic designer Robert Israel, the women are the only inhabitants with a modicum of sense. Mrs. Shlemiel knows her husband is a fool, but to paraphrase, he is her fool, and she wants him back.

Director David Gordon has kept the pacing and tempo appropriately fizzy, and aside from some mild sexual undertones, this is a fun show for a family with children over 10. Shlemiel is boarded with the family that he believes is not really his, but he and the other Mrs. Shlemiel are strangely attracted to one another. She is nicer to him than his real wife, he marvels, and the children are more polite, as well. Tryna Ritza is just happy to have a man back in the house, and in her bed.

There is some unevenness in the cast, but the leads are excellent, and the music keeps it all rolling along.

Whether it is as deeply Jewish as it would have been in Yiddish is another matter. There are lots of Yiddish words in the script, but they are the familiar words that have made it into the American lexicon – shlemiel, shmendrick, shemegegeh – and the jokes lack some of the acidity that mark Yiddish humor.

There is a stupid-town in the folk literature of most cultures, so Chelm is part of a larger tradition, no doubt. Folly is not unique to the Jews, thank goodness.

It is understandable that the new leadership of the Folksbiene wants to expand its audience – that is the only way to survive – but it is also true that for some, the loss of Yiddish in the company that bills itself as the longest continuously producing Yiddish theater company in the world will sting.

In purely theatrical terms, however, “Shlemiel the First” is a charmer.

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