by Myra Chanin
I grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household where my parents, while fluent in English, loved Yiddish theater, so I saw my first play at the age of five. It was a music comedy with stock characters — a poor but honest boy who somehow acquired a winning lottery ticket, but couldn’t hold on to either the luck or the money. So what else is new? I remember the actors dancing atop a wood table. It was naturally a panoramic view in keeping with our seats in the last row of the amphitheater. Yiddish soap operas broadcast on our local radio station were more of my regular fare and contained variations on that same theme, classic narratives in which either a mother vanishes or a child is abducted but ultimately reappears in time for a happy reunion.
The Sorceress is an operetta written in 1878 by Avrom Goldfaden, the founder of the first professional Yiddish language theater in Romania as well as the composer of Roshenkes mit Mandlen (raisins and almonds), the most familiar of all Jewish lullabies. Goldfaden was a well-educated, ambitious creative artist and an extremely prolific writer. The Sorceress was the 40th of 60 plays written by him. The Sorceress arrived in New York with the 14-year-old future Yiddish theatrical impresario Boris Thomashefsky and was the first formal Yiddish theatrical production in America. Thomashefsky played the Sorceress Bobe Yakhne in it and actually met his future wife and theatrical partner Bessie when she came backstage to personally applaud the “adorable girl” playing The Sorceress at Turn Hall on E. 4th Street where La MaMa is located now.
The Sorceress has a melodramatic, spooky plot. It’s an old-fashioned Wild West kind of story. All that’s lacking is a moustache twirling villain. We start with a successful father, a devoted mother, and our innocent heroine Mirele, their only child; her handsome, faithful fiancé turns the fond family trio into a perfect quartet. Their happiness proves short-lived when it attracts the attention of the shtetl sorceress, Bobe Yakhne. Right after she notices them, Mirele’s mother dies. In cahoots with the poor, jealous and greedy Basye + her equally vile daughter, Bobe Yakhne sends Basye off to snooker Mirele’s father, a bemused widower, into marrying her. When Basye becomes Mirele’s stepmother, all we can do is say the first of many Oy, veys.
NYTF Artistic Director Zalmen Mlotek has wanted to present this operetta as written for quite a while. After several workshops he accomplished that goal because its fully restored pre-Holocaust musical arrangements were saved from destruction during WWII by YIVO Scholars in Vilna who risked their lives to save thousands of unique documents and manuscripts.
The NYTF production is presented as a period piece – to look like it might have during its late 19th century heyday. The Sorceress is beautifully directed by Motl Didner. Izzy Fields has once again created splendid and noteworthy costumes — rich and lavish to match Mirele’s rich and lavish home and Cinderella-ishly lowly when Mirele is turned into a scullery maid by her wicked stepmother.
Dara Wishingrad’s scenic design is simply spectacular, particularly outstanding during the tableaus when Mirele (spoiler alert!) is delivered into the hands of a middleman Infidel Turk slave trafficker as both the boat, ocean waves and sailors rise and fall, rock up and down and back and forth. As always Zalmen Mlotek’s Music direction is superb, appropriately joyful and sprightly, and slightly moody and dark when appropriate. The supertitles were very helpful when I needed them.
The performers of the Ensemble easily switched costumes and characters, but the leading characters just excelled. Jazmin Gorsline as Mirele and Josh Kohane as her stalwart and true sweetheart Markus made the melodies they sang and lyrics they uttered sparkle. Rachel Botchan, the wicked stepmother. sang and acted too well for her character to be booed. Mikhl Yashinsky owned the stage as Bobe Yakhne. I was particularly impressed by their telling all about their supernatural spells. Bobe Yakhne also delivered the most hypnotic, seductive and memorable minor key song, “Kim Kim,’’ which distracted Mirele long enough to allow her to be ensnared. It was great to see Steve Sterner get off his piano bench – I know him as the musical accompanist for silent films – and strut his stuff at Hotsmakh, the conman peddler.
The story has a moral. Those who dig a grave for someone else, fall in it themselves. Let’s hope that still holds true today.
The Sorceress is being performed until December 29, 2019 by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Edward J. Safra Plaza, 36 Battery Place, New York NY 10280 www.nytf.org