New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

Festival of Jewish Theater & Ideas - June 2009
(all around Manhattan)

New York City is now immersed in Jewish theater (early June), with the Festival of Jewish Theater & Ideas currently unfolding. Some sixteen full productions, plus numerous readings, explore Jewish theater as it now exists.

We are not talking about Yiddish theater, which once represented the only foray into Jewish theater, but the English-speaking version which is very much alive and well. Proof of this is the lively, extensive event in Manhattan.

The Festival, according to its Artistic Director Edward Einhorn, ties in with the Association for Jewish Theatre’s annual Conference. Dates overlap. Thus, the Festival provides the shows, while the Conference offers discussion, panels, workshops and general “schmoozing.”

Unfortunately, we were able to attend only a few of the many shows (which include documentary theater, puppet theater, Yiddish and Israeli sources, classics and contemporary work). At best, it was only a sampling.

Within two days, we saw “Jewbird,” “Ten Imaginings,” and “Mentschen.” Our favorite was the irresistible “Jewbird,” based on a Bernard Malamud story. It is kind of modern fable, but remarkably truthful. A talking bird flies into the tenement of a Lower East Side Jewish family. He is bedraggled and scrawny. Yet feisty, as he demands a “shtickla herring and, maybe, a crust of bread?” This invasion plays out as a family drama, as the mother and son welcome the bird while the father wants no part of this uninvited guest. Charming and comic though it is, “Jewbird” provides food for thought. And not just herring.

“10 Imaginings of Sarah & Hagar” is a new take on women of the Scriptures. This is a lyrical, moving piece written by Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer and sensitively directed by Deborah Baer-Mozes (Artistic Director of Theater Ariel in Philadelphia). It is also a new take on the founding of two nations—the children of Sarah’s Isaac and Hagar’s Ishmael. The piece is eerily prophetic, considering Barack Obama’s recent Mid-East speech which urged just such a direction.

Finally, we wandered into “Mentschen,” a Sholem Aleichem play (translated by Ellen Perecman and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub). Dealing with the cruel treatment of servants, “Mentschen” proved to be very dated (unlike other Sholem Aleichem stories). Yet the performances were fun to watch, and offered a look into a 19th century Jewish world.

All told, the Festival augurs well for the future, suggesting that playwrights, performers, producers and directors will continue to explore the Jewish experience—its past, present and future. One hopes that the Festival will be an ongoing (perhaps an annual) event.

---Irene Backalenick
June 6, 2009

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