New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

New Jewish Shows Surfacing in New York

The Ninth Annual New York International Fringe Festival has been running all this month. This unique event, the largest of its kind anywhere in the world, has been playing all over downtown Manhattan, encompassing some 20 theaters, 4000 theater people and volunteers and 60,000 theatergoers!

It is the time when the newcomers have their say. Topics are chosen for shock effect in this raucous, no-holds-barred atmosphere, with emphasis on sexual activity of every variation. Shock effect is the order of the day. And though the pieces are supposedly carefully selected, the quality varies considerably. Works range from the stupid to the sublime, from the trivial to the triumphant, from the boring to the brilliant, from the monotonous to the memorable.

Not surprisingly, a Jewish presence is felt throughout this creative effort, as evidenced by the numbers of young Jewish writers, directors, producers, perfomers—and, probably, audiences--who have surfaced in this three-week run. Theater, the Jews decided a long time ago, is good for the Jews.

But shows of specific Jewish interest are also among the some 200 offerings. First on the list alphabetically was “Bronx Express,” a new musical about a Jewish immigrant’s yearnings to assimilate. This piece had two things going for it—the fact that it was based on a play by the Yiddish writer Osip Dymov, and the fact that it was translated into English by the gifted writer Nahma Sandrow. But, turned into a musical, it falls flat on its face, giving in to clichés and awkward commentary about the world of advertising and big business. A religious, working-class man sells his soul to the devil (where have we heard that before?), only to realize finally that the simple, true values are best.

So much for “Bronx Express.” Somewhat better is “Frida and Herself,” a dance/puppetry drama that tackles the life of the Jewish/Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. While this short piece sets very narrow limits, it manages, within these limits, to give a sense of the life and agonies of the painter. Director/choreographer Brandy Leary portrays Frida through dance, interweaving choreography with the monologue of actress Nathalie Toriel. Life-size puppets and shadow puppetry round out the creative effort.

“Ponzi Man,” a straight drama, must be seen as a work-in-progress with possibilities yet to be clearly realized. The story of a dysfunctional Jewish family caught in white-collar crime accusations, it has strong moments. But, more often than not, one is confused by the accumulation of loves, hates, jealousies, regrets, and recriminations, as family members attack and rescue each other. Whatever success this piece has is due to the main character, the matriarch of the family, beautifully portrayed by Ruth Jaffe. Jaffe manages to hold the piece together, to keep it from flying in all directions.

Other new works with Jewish themes or characters include: “Amerika, “ which is billed as “a whimsical journey through the creative process of Franz Kafka, who finds himself trapped in his own novel…”; “Faker,” a one-woman show which throws in just about everything that’s au courant--the heroine being a Jewish Lesbian who undergoes extreme make-over (emulating the currently popular “make-over” shows) and becomes a super-star; and in another one-actor show, Daniel Thau-Eleff, a Canadian Jew, takes his audience on a journey through politics, religion, e-mail, dreams and fantasies.

Thus the three-week Festival comes to an end, leaving behind a massive clean-up and recovery for Lower Manhattan. Whether any of these shows—“Frida” or “Ponzi Man,” for example, will go on to another life, remains to be seen.

-- Irene Backalenick
Aug. 26, 2005

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