by Myra Chanin
God of Vengeance is a century old drama, but one which is very contemporary in its perception of love, lust and ambition. Written in 1906 by 26-year-old newlywed poet Sholem Asch—and who could be more attuned to the variations of love, lust and ambition than a 26-year-old newlywed poet! It’s currently being performed in the original (Oy vey!) Yiddish by the outstanding company, New Yiddish Rep, which has garnered rave reviews over the past several seasons for its Yiddish-language productions of classic plays (including last year’s Drama Desk-nominated Death of a Salesman). Considered one of the most psychologically revealing plays of the 20th century, and still highly explosive for its conflicted view of Judaism, God of Vengeance is the basis of Paula Vogel’s Indecent, which enjoyed a critically acclaimed extended run last spring and will be coming to Broadway in the spring of 2017.
Don’t understand Yiddish? Not to worry. Thanks to excellent English super-titles and the body language and facial expressions of the cast, the thoughts and feelings of the shtetl Jews become real, personal and present. Anyone who’s ever been entranced by a Bergman, Almodovar or Truffaut film, despite a total unfamiliarity with Swedish, Spanish or French, will leave this Yiddish production with an equally enthusiastic emotional response.
God of Vengeance is a powerful non-Aristotelian tragedy about ordinary people grappling with significant moral and ethical issues: sin, guilt, remorse and fear of retribution. It’s the wrenching story of a brothel owner’s attempt to marry off his daughter to a Torah scholar, only to have her drawn back into the life of sin in which she grew up.
Yekel Tchaptchovitch (Shane Baker), wants his only child Rivkele (Shayna Schmidt) to lead a respectable life. And to get it for her, he is willing to pay for the creation of a new Torah Scroll which doubles as a partial dowry for a pious Torah scholar bridegroom. Yekel expects his wife Sarah (Eleanor Reissa), an ex-employee, to shield the pure Rivkele from the effects of his corrupt enterprise. He expects heavenly retribution for his sins, but hopes God will spare his daughter. The intermediary between Yekel and God is the shtetl’s manipulative righteousness maven, Reb Eli (David Mandelbaum), who is more interested in sustaining the community than in Yekel’s confession or remorse. And should some impure act defile Rivkele? Not to worry. More dollars added to Rivkele’s dowry will calm any qualms the bridegroom’s father may express.
What can go wrong? Naturally, everything.
Rivkele has already dipped her toes into impure waters and is in love with Manke (Melissa Weisz), one of her father’s sex workers. Manke is involved in a plot to lure the virginal Rivkele into the second oldest profession in exchange for a shot at upper management.
Who wins? Who loses? My lips are sealed. Buy a ticket and find out.
This production is exceptional because of Eleanor Reissa’s skill as both actor and director. Reissa is a Broadway, Off-Broadway and international prizewinning actor, director, choreographer and singer, fluent in English and Yiddish. Her work is elegant, unique, honest, radiant, and authentic; and her profound, understated direction shields the actors from the vengeance of melodrama by helping the cast present the characters’ complex layers. I have no doubt that had Eleanor Reissa lived when Second Avenue was the Jewish Broadway, she would have been its Helen Mirren.
Shane Baker is another exceptional artist. Raised Irish Catholic, his fascination with Catskill comedy made him learn Yiddish, which he speaks as naturally now as someone born in Berdichev. Baker is also an excellent translator via his Yiddish version of Waiting for Godot, and has written the supertitles for God of Vengeance. His portrayal of Yekel—as a remorseful sinner—is masterful. Caraid O’Brien playing Hindl, Yekel’s head hooker, is further proof that the Irish may be a lost tribe of Israel. She became interested in Yiddish through her desire to translate Yiddish plays and was lauded for her translation of God of Vengeance and for David Pinski’s Yankel der Schmid.
Shayna Schmidt’s Rivkele glows with the hope and beauty of youthful love. Melissa Weisz’s Manke is properly seductive. Yekel’s girls—Rachel Bothchan and Mira Kessler—are also distinct and convincing. Luzer Twersky making his theater debut as slimeball Shloyme the Pimp seemed as comfortable as a seasoned trouper.
Three cheers also for David Mandelbaum—Artistic Director and co-founder of the New Yiddish Rep, who has worked in experimental theatre for 40 years—for his Reb Eli, who stole every scene every moment he was on stage.
La Mama’s intimate first floor venue supplied a perfect intimate setting for this family play where Vicki R. Davis recreated the sets and costumes of an early 20th century upscale household.
God of Vengeance. Through January 22 at La Mama’s First Floor Theater (74A East 4th Street, between Second Avenue and The Bowery). www.newyiddishrep.org Or call 800-838-3006.
Photos: Ronald Glassman