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Theatre in Review: The Jewish King Lear (Metropolitan Playhouse)

Olivia Killingsworth, Joel Leffert. Photo: Emily Hewitt

The persistence of the Yiddish theatre into the twenty-first century, a good seventy years after it ceased to be a major cultural force in New York, continues to astonish. In recent seasons, we have gotten Yiddish-language productions of Death of a Salesman and Awake and Sing!, as well as the restored operetta The Golden Bride and a revival of the revue Amerike: The Golden Land. Paula Vogel's Indecent, about the complex history of the drama God of Vengeance, transferred to Broadway even as God of Vengeance itself played two Off Broadway engagements. Coming this summer is a Yiddish revival of Fiddler on the Roof, directed by Joel Grey. And, currently, Metropolitan Playhouse is presenting a most interesting revival of Jacob Gordin's The Jewish King Lear, in an English version by Ruth Gay. If you have any interest in the history of this theatrical form, a visit is indicated.

As the characters note rather exhaustively, the life of Reb Dovidl Moysheles eerily mirrors that of Shakespeare's tragedy; what proves most interesting is how he folds into a Lear-like plot the religious tensions of late-nineteenth-century Jewry along with questions of women's rights. (Gordin is credited with bringing a realism and seriousness of purpose to Yiddish drama, which previously consisted of light musicals and comedies.) A pious, wealthy businessman living in Vilna, Reb Dovidl proposes to split his fortune among his three daughters and move to Palestine, where he will devote himself to religious study. Khane Leah, his wife, who hasn't been consulted at all, is horrified by this plan, but two of his daughters -- the fawning, grasping Etele and Gitele -- are only too happy to obey their father; the youngest, Taybele, not only doesn't want the money, she wants to study medicine in St. Petersburg. For such ambitions, a young lady could get disowned.

The move to Palestine proves to be a bust and Reb Dovidl and Khane Leah return, now reduced to living with Etele, who treats them as little more than servants; their days are filled with menial household duties and the pantry is kept permanently locked, lest they steal a crumb. Moyshe Hasid, Gitele's husband, hits the bottle -- interestingly, the script treats the Hasidim as a bunch of heavy-drinking carousers -- while Etele and her husband, Avrom Harif, sit on everyone's money, refusing to dole out so much as a kopeck. Finally, dragged down by hunger, ill treatment, and the loss of his vision, Reb Dovidl staggers out into the night, accompanied only by his steward, Trytel.

Gordin certainly knew how to write scenes. Act I, which unfolds at a Purim dinner, neatly establishes Reb Dovidl as something of a bully, presiding over a family rife with internecine conflicts. Later, Taybele's independence is a source of scandal: Etele tells her younger sister, "We've had enough disgrace and shame from you since you went away from us and became a teacher." And Taybele's departure for St. Petersburg, where she intends to study, elicits Reb Dovidl's scathing assessment that she is "worse than a convert." Taybele attempts to obtain an allowance of 26 rubles a month -- the tiniest fraction of what Reb Dovidl offered her -- only to be brusquely rebuked. Before he flees, Reb Dovidl tries to take back his fortune, but surrenders in despair. Taybele returns again and is stunned by the heartbreaking sight of her parents being treated as little better than animals; the house collapses into total disorder when Moyshe and his friends take over for a drunken revel.

Until the fourth, and final, act, when a ludicrously imposed happy ending elicited audience giggles, The Jewish King Lear is a gripping, full-throated melodrama with much to say about the characters' way of life. Reb Dovidl's family looks down on Herr Yaffe, the scholarly young man who falls for Taybele, because he is German and not part of the Russian Empire. Avrom, Etele's husband, is constantly squabbling with Moyshe about his Hasidic beliefs -- and the household descends into chaos when Moyshe and his friends, celebrating the release of a beloved rebbe from prison, take part in a drunken revel. And Etele and Gitele have nothing but contempt for Taybele's thirst for learning. Without Reb Dovidl to hold everything together, for good or for ill, by sheer force of personality, the family is bound to splinter into so many factions.

Under Ed Chemaly's direction, Joel Leffert's performance as Reb Dovidl provides the production with a necessary center of gravity. His jolly bullying manner in Act I marks him as riding for a fall, and his scene-by-scene humiliation is something to see; when he returns from wandering the streets, living as a beggar, the change in him is remarkable. But the entire cast is solid, with standout work by Olivia Killingsworth as Taybele, who matures into a formidable woman, and Tyler Kent as Herr Yaffe, mousy at first and later a force to be reckoned with when he threatens to destroy Avrom and Etele. As Trytel, who is the equivalent of Lear's Fool, Jeremy Lawrence has a thankless task, constantly engaging the audience with humorous commentary that long ago lost its bite, but he is authentically poignant in the later scenes.

The production is a simple one, but Sidney Fortner's costumes are in period and are suitable to the characters, and Scott Andrew Cally's lighting gets the job done. There is that impossibly happy wrap-up to deal with, but this is another reminder that the Yiddish theatre was once a hugely lively piece of New York life, and, as such, is well worth a visit. -- David Barbour


(15 May 2018)

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