Ethnic Theater - Jewish
University Settlement Theatre, Manhattan
It is a rare opportunity to see Sholem Asch’s Yiddish melodrama “Motke Thief,” now playing at the University Settlement Theatre on the Lower East Side, the very neighborhood of its origins. Aaron Beall (director) and Caraid O’Brien (translator) have combined forces to bring this 1917 vintage piece to life once again, this time in English.
Asch had chosen to depict a seedy underworld teeming with Jewish criminals, an area rarely explored before his time. His better-known “God of Vengeance” dealt with Jewish brothels, prostitutes, and lesbians, subject matter which caused the play to be closed and its players jailed when it was staged in this country in the 1920s.
But “Motke” was equally daring for its time—profiling a thief/murderer/pimp who attempts to reform. While “Motke” plays out as a melodrama, the genre so familiar to Yiddish theater, its subject matter was unique.
O’Brien (translator, scholar, actress, and playwright in her own right) has remained faithful to Asch’s intent, staying close to the original text. It is a fascinating character study—the portrait of a boy raised on the streets, living by his wits, who grows up to be a kingpin in the crime world, an impulsive and violent man.
But the production, under Beall’s direction, falters. Though fight scenes are fast-moving and well-staged, much of the story moves too slowly. And Beall has corralled an uneven cast, though he certainly deserves points for color-blind casting—drawing upon actors of every origin. Yet there are several stand-outs in the cast---Gurjant Singh as the boy Motke, Elka Rodriguez as Motke’s mother, Mark Greenberg, who plays his father and a circus impresario, Caraid O'Brien as a prostitute, plus others in several roles—Darius Stone, Corey Carthew, Bern Cohen and Marlene Hamerling. Motke himself, played by Jonathan Butler, gets mixed treatment. Butler’s early scenes are one-dimensional, as he skulks about the stage, presumably seething with rage. But he comes into his own in the later acts, as the character grows in complexity, with a final confessional scene which is indeed moving.
But, all told, this attempt to rescue an historic piece from oblivion is indeed commendable.
-- Irene Backalenick
Dec. 1, 2005