New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

"Gimpel Tam"
Folksbiene--the National Yiddish Theatre, JCC in Manhattan

The Folksbiene has done it again! This time around, the venerable Yiddish theater (the oldest continuing company in this country, Yiddish or otherwise) has recreated a beloved shtetl tale and given it great charm. “Gimpel Tam” (or, roughly translated, “Gimpel the Fool”) is a new musical based on the famous Isaac Bashevis Singer short story.

Credit goes, first of all, to Moshe Yassur, a Romanian Jew who adapted the tale and also directs it. (The show, in fact, had its inception at the Jewish State Theatre in Bucharest Roumania in 2007, and now enjoys its American premiere.) For Yassur, “Gimpel Tam” is as much a healing process as an artistic challenge. Yassur, a Holocaust survivor who lost his family at that time, writes, “I felt from the very beginning that music could add a lighter counterpoint to an otherwise dark and sad story, thus underscoring, I hope, the ironies so subtly woven by Singer into the story.”

What is “Gimpel Tam” about? So typical of Singer’s stories, it is loaded with ironic insights into the human condition. Gimpel is a poor fool (or so it seems) who is ridiculed by the entire community. Others in the shtetl constantly deceive him, with tricks that play into his naivete and innate decency. When they marry him off to the town whore, he, of course, believes that she is a virgin, and her small son is her little brother. No matter that she again gives birth, almost at the moment of the wedding. Gimpel adores her. The years pass, they remain married, but Elke never allows him into her bed. Yet she continues to have children. Elke, of course, convinces Gimpel that the children are his, by some kind of immaculate conception. Only in the end do we see that Gimpel himself emerges the victor, with his own kind of triumph.

Under Yassur’s impeccable direction, this American production emerges triumphant. The fine cast is topped by the most endearing Adam Shapiro (as Gimpel), the dynamic, sexy Daniella Rabbani as Elke, and a first-rate supporting cast (too numerous to single out). Radu Captari’s music and lyrics are pleasing and appropriate, and shine forth under the musical direction of Folksbiene’s artistic director Zalmen Mlotek. Roger Hanna’s scenic and lighting design are right on target, as are Gail Cooper-Hecht costumes, and Inka Justin’s choreography.

Whether or not one speaks Yiddish, “Gimpel” is an easy story to follow. There’s always the overhead translations (into English and Russian) for the language-impaired.

In all, it is a new show worthy of the Folksbiene. Though “Pirates of Penzance” remains our favorite Folksbiene production in recent times, “Gimpel Tam” continues a worthy tradition.

-- Irene Backalenick
Nov. 28, 2008

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