By: Sandi Durell
The rich cultural life of Yiddish Vaudeville is alive at the Flea Theater as we peek into an old building on the Lower East Side about to be demolished where a theater has been discovered by four people who enter with flashlights, each seeking their own piece of the past.
A woman (Ann Talman), a photographer eager to capture what remains in her camera lens; Yiddish comic (Shane Baker) is a presence from the past; a young singer (Carey Urban) and a man (Max Arnaud) eager to grab any object to give to his grandfather as a memory, as they all come together in the reminiscent flavor of a Follies entrance.
What transpires are short stories and sketches that give insight into the hearts and minds of the immigrants who flowed into this country through the “Bintel Brief,” a column in the Yiddish language Jewish Daily Forward, the paper whose editor Abraham Cahan helped the new settlers learn about America. It also served as a voice for Jews to talk to each other by writing letters to the paper about personal matters (a prelude to Dear Abby), seeking advice and lost loved ones.
In this format there are both sad and humor-filled sequences and stories, in song and dialogue, that cover love triangles, stories of deceit and extra-marital affairs, a glimpse into gay relationships and sex. Even the audience learns a little Yiddish when we’re asked to stand up, copy gestures and repeat “nu” – and suddenly we’re all fluent in Yiddish!
The stories, or letters read from the Jewish Daily Forward touch on husbands who desert wives and children, a nebbish husband who doesn’t work but is in love with the Rabbi’s wife, whose own mieskeit (ugly) wife runs a brothel and whose daughter, in order to earn money, has been forced into prostitution and is in love with a girl who is also a prostitute, spurning the Rabbi’s son who is in love with someone else – (yes, these are intricately woven stories that all connect!) – the wife screeching “worthless husband, degenerate daughter!”
Remembrances of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire are relived with sadness as the foursome give insight into times past accompanied by an accordion played by Michel J. Spudic (which, in the small space, can sometimes overshadow the vocals). The vaudeville style comic humor was many times corny as it should be and the Yiddish accents come and go. But the intention of keeping heritage alive, the essence of the past present is what comes through.
The Exodus Code is presented by America-in-Play as they continue to present stories about the melting pot of immigrants who shaped this country.
This play is written by Rob Hartmann, Laura Henry, Andrea Lepcio, Susan Tenneriello with music by Rob Hartmann and Lyrics by Andrea Lepecio and Susan Tenneriello. The Exodus Code is directed by Lynn M. Thomson; set/costume design by Robert Eggers.
Thru July 28th, The Flea Theater, 41 White St., NYC (Tribeca) 212 352-3101