You didn’t know that Queen Esther chewed gum? Or that her accent was less Shushan than Brooklyn?
Or that Haman was a woman with a green face, a nasty cackle, and very bad hair?
That’s because you weren’t at the Purim shpiels at Temple Beth Sholom in New City over the last five years. You missed the Purim versions of “Grease” and “The Wizard of Oz.”
There’s still hope for you. You can go this year to see “The Little Mermaideleh,” self-evidently the intersection of Megillat Esther and the Disney film about Ariel finding her power. (See box.)
These productions are the creations of two good friends, Dawn Bernstein of Suffern and Caryn Friedland of New City, who have written and directed Beth Sholom’s Purimshpiels for the last five years.
It was a sort of logical job for the two to undertake, but it also was a bit of a stretch. Neither had any background in theater; they love to sing but not in front of audiences, they said. Neither thought of herself as a performer, or as a writer or director. Dawn is an HR consultant during the year and takes some time off to be the lakeside director at Camp Woodmount in New City in the summertime; Caryn is a school psychologist.
But their backgrounds give them both organizational skills and a strong background in working with people, and that was a big help, they said. They had been lay leaders at the synagogue together; they’d chaired its Young Members Club, which meant that they’d worked together on the kinds of programs and parties designed specifically to bring people together and allow them to find friends and connect to the shul. So they knew and loved their community and the importance of supporting it.
And they knew that whatever they could do separately, they could do better together. They’d known each other vaguely since they were teenagers, a grade apart at Clarkstown North High School; they met again when they both had young children — Caryn has two kids, Dawn has three, and they’re both planning bar mitzvah celebrations right now — and they’ve been inseparable ever since.
So when they realized that they’d done as much as they could with the Young Members Club, and that it was time to hand it over to new leaders and move on, the synagogue’s rabbi, Brian Leiken, and its cantor, Anna Zhar, approached them with a formidable-sounding request. Hey kids, why don’t you put on a show?
Why them? Because they’re fun-loving, they were told, and the work they’d done had made people happy. “If you come up with a Purim shpiel, it will be successful,” Dawn remembers Cantor Zhar telling them. That’s not a pitch they could refuse, Caryn added. “Also, we both have long histories with day camps and summer camps. We are used to writing cheers and color war songs.” That, as it turned out — who knew? — is a transferable skill.
Purimshpiels have a long history; they can be traced back to mid-16th century Europe. They’ve always allowed for raucous creativity, pointed satire, and transgressive humor (along with occasionally weak jokes and wince-producing failed ones); now, Dawn said, “it gives us the opportunity to take a pause from our crazy and hectic world and laugh with a group of people we care about.”
When they first agreed to put together a Purim-shpiel, Caryn said, “we took the creative freedom to do what we wanted to do. You have to find a story that can work with the Purim story. So we took ‘Grease’ and totally manipulated the story to make it into something that works.”
They presented “Grease” two years in a row — it worked so well and was so popular that they decided to reprise it — and since then they’ve taken on both “The Wizard of Oz” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
“We try to stick to the story as much as we can,” Dawn said. “In some cases it’s easier than in others.” They use the music as it’s written and set their own words to it, using the original rhyme scheme when they can. They take the characters and then use as much of the plot as they can.
“Esther was Sandy in ‘Grease,’ Danny was the king, and Mordechai was the coach,” Caryn said. “Haman we just made up. We always have a Vashti in the play, and she was just Vashti in ‘Grease,’ but the Pink Ladies were the other girls who tried out to be with the king, and the T-Birds were the king’s boys.
“It was a stretch — but it worked. It was pretty cute.”
They also work closely with Cantor Zhar, who is tasked with making the music work; figuring out how to cut songs, how to arrange them, how to adjust them to the singers’ ranges. At the spiel, Cantor Zhar plays piano, and a band made up of synagogue members provides the rest of the music.
Both women always are in the shpiel. “Dawn is always Esther,” Caryn said. “And it’s funny. I wasn’t anybody in the shpiel in ‘Grease.’ I was just Frenchie. But last year our friend who always had been Haman couldn’t be in it. It was ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ and Haman was a woman. The Wicked Witch. That was me. And that went over so well that this year there will be another woman Haman, in ‘The Little Mermaid,’ and that will be me. I am Ursula as Haman.”
The core cast has been together throughout all five shpiels; new cast members always are welcome, the two women said, and children always are included. Do they need auditions? Dawn and Caryn laughed. They should be so lucky. No one is turned away.
There is one woman who says that she can’t sing at all, but she’s been involved in every spiel. She holds the go and stop sign that tells audiences when to boo Haman and when to stop so the show can go on. She loves it, they love it, and it works.
The first shpiel started a tradition that they’ve maintained ever since, Caryn and Dawn said. “The last song in ‘Grease’ is ‘We Go Together’” — if you’re trying to remember the next words, they’re “Like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong…” — “we went down the aisle of the sanctuary, singing and dancing to that, and now we do it every year. We sing ‘We will always, Spiel together.’
“We want to get people excited,” they said.
Who: Actors, singers, and musicians from Temple Beth Sholom
What: Put on this year’s Purimshpiel, “The Little Mermaideleh”
When: On Sunday, March 8, at 11 a.m.
Where: At the synagogue, 228 New Hempstead Road, New City
For more information: Call (845) 638-0770