Sholem Aleichem’s beloved character Tevye der Milkhiker
— Tevye the Dairyman — is having a moment. In addition to the Folksbiene’s current Yiddish adaptation of “Fiddler on the Roof” (see page 10), the Congress for Jewish Culture is presenting a selection of skits based on Sholem Aleichem’s other writings, including some Tevye stories not in the musical. This funny and poignant show depends entirely on the exceptional talents of the three performers — Shane Baker, Yelena Shmulenson, and Allen Lewis Rickman — who bring real acting chops as well as a superb command of the language to this work.
These three are well known in the Yiddish theater world. Shane Baker, “the best-loved Episcopalian on the Yiddish stage today,” has a long history with the New Yiddish Rep and played Vladimir in that company’s great production of “Waiting for Godot,” which used Baker’s own Yiddish translation. Shmulenson and Rickman are a couple who played the Yiddish-speaking couple in the Coen brothers’ film “A Serious Man,” translating the Coens’ dialogue into Yiddish. They also created and starred in a delightful Fringe Festival production called “The Essence: A Yiddish Theater Dim Sum.” They have a long list of theater, film, and television credits as well.
The play opens with a skit called “Strange Jews on a Train,” with Baker and Shmulenson playing two travelers who fall to gossiping about one of their hometowns. Rickman stands between them, translating their conversation into slangy, pungent English at top speed. As the travelers chat, we get a portrait of small town backbiting and envy. Sholem Aleichem spent much of his time on the road, traveling across the Pale of Settlement to give lectures and readings. He must have listened to many conversations, which gave rise to dialogues like this one.
Several of the skits are about Tevye, played by Rickman, and his youngest daughter, Chava, the one who falls in love with a gentile. As it was illegal for a Christian to marry a Jew, Chava has to convert to the Russian Orthodox faith, and before the wedding has to stay with the priest and have no contact with her parents. Tevye’s rage and heartbreak are palpable as he is forced to plead with the imperious priest, played by Baker, to be allowed to see his daughter. We return to Chava in one of the final sketches, when Tevye is evicted from his home after generations of his family have lived in the same place. Rickman and Baker drew these pieces from Sholem Aleichem’s own theatrical dramatization of the Tevye stories, which formed the basis for the film by the great actor/director Maurice Schwartz, who founded the Yiddish Art Theatre in New York City.
Director Rickman intersperses funnier material between the Tevye stories so we come away with a fuller sense of Sholem Aleichem’s work, which could be dark as well as humorous. In the letters between Menakhem Mendel and his fiancée, Shayna Sheindel, we get a hilarious tale of a shlemiel who always is trying to strike it rich. Again, Rickman acts as translator, capturing the bombast and pomposity of Menachem’s letters as well as Shayna’s irritation and contempt. Using a living translator as well as supertitles is an inspired idea when the translator is as funny and energetic as Rickman.
The trio saves for last what actually was Sholem Aleichem’s first literary creation. As a young teen, he put together a glossary of his stepmother’s extraordinarily imaginative curses and insults, “A Stepmother’s Trash Talk.” It’s something to see Rickman and Shmulenson race through this alphabetical list of jibes and affronts.
“Tevye Served Raw” is running on Thursday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesdays evenings through August 14 at the Playroom Theater, 151 West 46th St.