By Tulis MCall
Full disclosure – I saw Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway in 1965. My sister and I sat audience left very close to the front and I think the tickets were $9.95. I wasn’t crazy for Mostel who was doing schtick that made the audience howl but had nothing to do with the story. It bugged me. Even at 15 I was one smart shiksa.
Speaking of which, have you ever noticed how many words we have looted from the Yiddish? America is not the home of the King’s English – we speak Mongrel. Someone sneezes we say, “gezunterheyt.” “Kinder” (as in Kindergarten). Mensch. Bagel. Meshuge. Come to this production and you will hear them rolling off the tongue of the actors portraying the people who survived the Russians (in this case) and brought their families, hopes and creativity to this country. Oh, them immigrants….
Sound familiar, nu?
National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF) production of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddishmakes takes the daring step of returning this story to its Yiddish roots. This is the Fiddler that was given to us as The Dairyman Vignettes by Sholem Aleichem (the pen name of Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich) born in 1859 in what was then Russia (now The Ukraine). This is the language of the people who filled the pages. And this is, ultimately, why the production works. The language is at the center of the tale.
Steven Skybell is a sincere Teyve who is just realizing that his daughters Hodl (Stephanie Lynn Mason), Tsaytl Tsaytl (Rachel Zatcoff), Khave (Evan Mayer),Shprintze (Raquele Nobile) and Beylke (Samantha Hahn) are growing up and making their own decisions. You raise them and you let them go he tells God in one of they many one-sided conversations. But what if they go down a path you have not prepared? What if they think outside the preverbal box? When tradition is the center of life, what happens when it is shaken. In that case, you will make a new tradition.
While this production lacks snap-crackle and pop, there is a foundation of purity, of truth. The original production of Fiddler had little in the way of reality. It bypassed any seriousness of the threat to immigrants all over the world. This was the 1960’s and the biggest threat to Americans was the Beatles’ hair. The more recent production in 2016 was a dark, penetrating re-examination of the tale. This Fiddler falls somewhere in between. Text wise there is more social commentary focus. “Girls need to learn. Girls are people.” “The rich are criminals…There’ll come a day, and all their capital will belong to us.” The threat of rebellion is in the air. Neighbors turn on neighbors because of orders. Neighbors support neighbors new ideas because the real tradition is their connection. And their language. By giving us the tale in Yiddish, Joel Grey and this company make us listen in ways for which we are unprepared. The sound of language opens more than the ears. It opens the heart. I read a post on FaceBook the other day – it read “Never make fun of someone who speaks broken English. It means they know another language.”
Ultimately this production works for mysterious reasons. The language is the loom on which the tapestry is created. We are lured in without knowing it, and when the last person pulls their wheelbarrow out of Anatevka, we know in our gut that they may never see one another again. The community we have come to love is no more.
And what of us? What of our community? What of our connection to one another in the face of this shabby and shameful government? These are the questions left behind as the last fiddler leaves the stage.
Fiddler on the Roof In Yiddish- based on Sholem Alecheim stories by special permission of Arnold Perl, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Joseph Stein, with original New York Stage Production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. Yiddish Translatoin by Shraga Friedman. Directed by Joel Grey.
WITH Steven Skybell as Tevye, Jackie Hoffman as Yente, Jennifer Babiak as Golde, Joanne Borts as Sheyndl, Michael Einav, Lisa Fishman as Bobe Tsatyl, Kirk Geritano as Avrom; Abby Goldfarb, Samantha Hahn as Beylke; Cameron Johnson as Fyedka; John Giesige, Ben Liebert as Motl Kamzoyl; Moshe Lobel, Stephanie Lynne Mason as Hodl, Evan Mayer as Sasha, Rosie Jo Neddy as Khave; Raquel Nobile as Shprintze; Jonathan Quigley, Nick Raynor as Yosl; Bruce Sabath as Leyzer- Volf; Kayleen Seidl, Drew Seigla as Perchik; Adam B. Shapiro as Der Rov; Jodi Snyder as Frume-Sore; James Monroe Števko as Mendl; Lauren Jeanne Thomas as Der Fiddler; Bobby Underwood as Der Gradavoy; Mikhl Yashinsky as Nokhum/Mordkhe and Rachel Zatcoff as Tsaytl.
Musical staging and new choreography by Staś Kmieć, musical direction by Zalmen Molter, set design by Beowulf Boritt, costume design by Ann Hould-Ward, sound design by Dan Moses Schreier, lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski, wig and hair design by Tom Watson