New Yiddish Rep Juxtaposes Hilarity and Heartbreak in English, Hebrew and Yiddish in Hanoch Levin’s Doubleheader
By Myra Chanin
Hanoch Levin is the greatest modern Hebrew playwright and one of the world’s most prolific, having completed 63 plays in the 55 years he was alive. Hanoch Levin Squared is a magical back-to-back New Yiddish Rep presentation of two of Levin tragi-comic tours de force: The Labor of Life and The Whore from Ohio. Both are performed in Levin’s inspired original Hebrew, then also by slightly different casts via Eli Rosen’s comic but poignant Yiddish translations. If you don’t understand Hebrew or Yiddish not to worry, Moshe Lobel’s exquisite English supertitles are clearly readable on the back wall. Lobel and Rosen both grew up in Hassidic Brooklyn households where fluency in Hebrew and Yiddish were givens. In addition, they are both dazzling performers in any language.
I watched The Whore from Ohio in Hebrew and The Labor of Life in Yiddish. How did I manage? Having grown up in a non-religious household, my familiarity with Hebrew is a cut below zilch but Lobel’s superb and subtle supertitles fully revealed the complexities of the characters and their relationships. As for the misery packed but hilariously slapstick The Labor of Life, I understand Yiddish, but found Lobel’s supertitles helpful with unfamiliar words or phrases. During the early stages of the current Yiddish revival, many actors were non-Jews with absolutely no familiarity with Yiddish. They learned their lines syllable by syllable without feeling their meaning, either their bodies or brains. Yiddish Rep’s present crew are fluent in both languages and their understanding of these characters shows in their voices and body movements. Just looking at them is often enough.
Holbitter (miraculously portrayed by Yiddish Rep’s Artistic director David Mandelbaum) is the protagonist of The Whore from Ohio. He’s an elderly, bedraggled, claims-to-be totally impoverished miser. The whore from Ohio is his fantasy hooker, a classy beautifully dressed escort he heard about who lives in the lap of luxury on a Midwestern estate. To celebrate his 70th Birthday, Holbitter makes do with a baseborn local variety, the not-that-friendly neighborhood streetwalker Bronatsatski (the heartless Vered Hankin in Hebrew, Mary Black in Yiddish)). They haggle over price – 100 shekels vs. 10 – and what Holbitter can expect – once in the backyard. Which brings up another hitch. Holbitter’s penis is unable to do what it needs to do the deed.
The next snag is the appearance of Holbitter’s homeless son Holmar (Eli Rosen, intensely sad and fiercely annoying in his own translation) who’s convinced he’s the heir to his father’s fortune and wants to make the most of his father’s unused sexual down payment. The play takes a darker turn when Bronatsatski convinces the old fool that she cares for him but needs money to buy herself back from her pimp before returning to him. He gives her everything he has including his dead mother ‘s necklace. Does Bronatsatski return? Would anyone?
Holmar ,who is the son of a pauper but not a son of a bitch, reconciles with his father and the play adds sadly ever after.
The Labor of Life would have made a wonderful script for Groucho Marx. The hero Yona Popoch (the brilliant Gera Sandler in the Yiddish version, Yosi Sokolsky in Hebrew) is a frantic married man who dumps his long-suffering wife Leviva Popoch (the great Ronit Asheri-Sandler, also his partner in life) on the bedroom floor … and not for the first time … in order to tell her he’s leaving her and why. The rest of the play consists of her attempts to calm him down and get him back in bed. Does she? What do you think? Eli Rosen also appears in this play as a man in search of his hat.
I just want to add that the each one of the two plays were brilliantly directed in both languages by Ronit Muszkatblit, a German-born Israeli who is now the Director of A Laboratory for Jewish Culture at the 14th Street Y, as well as the Obie Award Winning director of new plays Michael Leibenluft. The resulting performances were breath-taking.
Here’s some information about everyone in the remarkable casts. I assume the people I didn’t see were as good as the ones that made me laugh out loud and tear up.
Ronit Asheri-Sander and her husband Gera Sandler have and for many years have been stars at the Israel’s Yiddish Theater. Mary Black who grew up in France, learned Yiddish as a child from her French father and rediscovered the Jewish world during a summer vacation with a Hasidic Brooklyn family. Vered Hankin is an internationally acclaimed storyteller and actor. Eli Rosen, born into the Brooklyn Hasidic community is now a recovering lawyer who acts and writes. Yosi Sokolsky has many NY credits including stints at LaMama and the Public Theater as well as the Yiddish Rep
In the future, anytime you hear about a Yiddish Rep production, listen to me, take a chance and buy yourself a ticket. Yiddish-shmiddish. You don’t have to understand it. I guarantee you’ll enjoy whatever is performed and be very moved by their creativity and imagination.
Rattlestick Theater 224 Waverley Place (played thru March 29th). www.NewYiddishRep.org