The current offering at the Yale Cabaret features a trip into the past: turn of the century Yiddish theater is invoked to create the proper spirit in which to view The Yiddish King Lear. Rather than a Yiddish language version of Shakespeare, as was created by Jacob Gordin in 1903 and whose work this production draws on, Martha Kaufman and Lauren Dubowski’s adaptation presents the story of Reb Dovidl (William DeMerrit), a patriarch at Purim who wants to engage in some festive drinking with his family and distribute jewels to his lovely daughters: two of whom, Etele (Prema Cruz) and Gitele (Tanya Dean) are married, while the third, his favorite, Taybele (Alex Trow) has a suitor—Yaffe (Chris Bannow) known as the “heretic” and the “unbeliever.” Thus there are Lear-like tensions in this story right from the start. Like Lear, Reb Dovidl, after smoothing over Taybele’s rebuff when she refuses the costly brooch he would lavish upon her, decides to partition his worldly goods amongst his three children—so he can live the rest of his days, unburdened by care, in Israel. His eldest daughter, married to the unsympathetic Avrom Harif (Benjamin Fainstein), is only too happy to take over management of the estate, while the second daughter, a bit more conscientious, though married to a partying pseudo-scholar (Mamoudou Athie), goes along. Only Taybele, Cordelia-like, demurs. Lest anyone in the audience miss the echoes of Shakespeare, Yaffe tells the old man his unreasoning behavior makes him “the Yiddish King Lear.” He tells him this first in naturalistic style, and then again in the more operatic style of turn-of-the-century theater. And that’s the nature of the “two worlds at once” fun of this production, directed by Whitney Dibo.
As the master of ceremonies (Paul Lieber) informs us at the start (in something of a come-and-go Yiddish accent), we are going to witness a feat of “naturalism”—the cutting-edge theatrical technique of the time. With that said, it’s quite entertaining to watch the YSD students give us dated “naturalistic” acting, in quotation marks, as it were. The power/comedy of the naturalism is underscored by the show’s best feature: audience members who are also part of the show, lending a kind of hilarious hysteria to the proceedings as they “ooh” and “ah” at plot turns and shout advice to the characters (not to the actors, mind you), and, at one particularly distressing point, have to be calmed by Reb Dovidl himself. On opening night these audience players included Lieber, Kate Tarker, Joshua Safran, who reads between scenes a statement about theater that invokes actors as gods, and Inka Guðjónsdóttir, the most vocal and comically stressed-out of the onlookers.
As contrast to all that naturalism, there’s a play within the play: a stagey enactment of the Purim story whereby Esther (Trow) thwarts the murderous Haman (Fainstein)—he of the famous tri-cornered hat that inspired the shape of hamentaschen (very tasty versions of which are supplied on the tables, courtesy of Westville Kosher Market), so that “nothing bad will ever happen to the Jews again!” That line, voiced by Trytel (Matt McCollum), Reb Dovidl’s fool, gives a fair idea of the spirit of the show, both respectful and enthusiastic about the sources but also winking at the naïvete of the era. Entertainingly and affectionately, the production celebrates how important theater was to Jewish immigrants. As Lieber says between scenes: the two sights everyone was immediately taken to see upon arrival in Brooklyn were the Brooklyn bridge, and the Yiddish theater.
Special credit to the set decorator, Brian Dudkiewicz, the musicians providing both musical accompaniment and sound effects—Tess Isaac, Martha Kaufman, Elizabeth Kim—and the spirited cast, especially DeMerritt’s moody paternalism and over-the-top recognition of himself as “the Yiddish King Lear”; Trow’s applause-demanding grandstanding everytime Taybele expresses views about female and male equality or hypes her knowledge as a doctor; McCollum, for Trytel’s grumpy asides and his devotion to Reb Dovidl; and Bannow’s Yaffe in his rationalist raining on the ritual.
The sense of pride and participation in theater, as an art that centers a community and puts on stage the kinds of stories the people recognize as part of their own lives, isn’t a bad goal to have and is one that the Cabaret, for its coterie of enthusiasts, often satisfies. L’chaim.
The Yiddish King Lear Directed by Whitney Dibo Adapted, Assembled, and Created with Martha Kaufman and Lauren Dubowski Based on Jacob Gordin’s 1903 play
Yale Cabaret March 8-10, 2012