A Wonderful “Awake and Sing” at Olney Theatre

This is the season for iconic Jewish plays on stage throughout the Washington DC area.  In how many cities can you see, Yentl, Fiddler on the Roof, and Awake and Sing all in a one month window? (Our Yentl closes Sunday with two final performances after taking Friday and Saturday off for Yom Kippur — and Fiddler began rehearsals this week, with our own Yentl , Shayna Blass, in the Arena Stage cast!) Still, in Fiddler and Awake and Sing, we’re talking about standard bearers for the American theater writ-large.  The Jewish experience, we can all agree, has been accepted to speak for the larger American experience—or certainly a part of it, right?  These works works aren’t confined to a ghetto of specialized, ethnic programming.

Rick Foucheux as Jacob and Alex Mandell as Ralph Berger in Olney Theatre Center’s production of AWAKE AND SING! (Photo by Stan Barouh)

Rick Foucheux as Jacob and Alex Mandell as Ralph Berger in Olney Theatre Center’s production of AWAKE AND SING! (Photo by Stan Barouh)

And yet, at last night’s talk-back at Olney Theatre, the final question (coming from someone very close to our theater company, no less) was posed in a candid way: “Isn’t this more of a New York story, and much less an American story?” There was some push-back from director Serge Seiden on stage, joining about 3/4ths of the cast.  It provided an opportunity for us to contemplate; can the singular, ethnic experience be meant to represent the larger nation’s experience?  Our questioner didn’t see his own California family in Odets’ New York Jews.  He felt an outsider to what was happening on stage.  We’ve all heard stories (courtesy of Alisa Solomon’s remarkable cultural history of Fiddler on The Roof, “Wonder of Wonders”) of how Fiddler has played just as convincingly in Japan as it has in Manhattan (“Tradition” rings resoundingly in the Far East, as do the threats to that cultural tradition.) But if you don’t recognize yourself, or your family, on stage, does that confine the universality and applicability of the portrait?

The great service of Seiden’s Olney Theatre production seems to be the way it speaks so powerfully, emotionally, and convincingly to three different generations at the same time.  How alive those young people felt last night! At least to me.  Odets language, electric for its time, popped off the stage so vividly and musically, shiny and new once again.  And the political divisions in the house-hold, with calls for strike from the elder statesman Jacob meeting up with calls for striking back at the rib cages of the agitating workers by big businessman brother Uncle Morty brought home that truism; that the most political entity remains the family, teeming, diverse and dynamic.

There’s so much to say about this show, and I hope we read some detailed comments over this holiday weekend.  We’ve been reading about The Group Theatre.  We’ve just read Odets’ Waiting For Lefty which sets the stage for this fuller, richer full-length treatment.  And I entreat everyone to check out the Olney Theatre blogsite for this production; a potpourri of great background context and information that helps give veracity and depth to the vivid production.

One point I do want to share — in encouraging our entire Theater J community to go out and see this great local production of Awake and Sing — is to mentally bookmark this play’s most dramatic event — the suicidal despair of Jacob Berger (played so beautifully by our dear friend—and most recent Dr. Frued in Seiden’s production of Freud’s Last Session, Rick Foucheux), a despair emerging from political disappointment and a self-incriminating realization that he’s as much to blame for the weakness of the movement—and the political weakness within his own struggling family.  This is a despair we’re going to experience early in Tony Kushner’s new play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide To Capitalism and Socialism With a Key To The Scriptures.  In so many ways, Kushner has written an homage to the family plays of Odets, and Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill.  But I never realized, until last night, how Kushner’s septuagenarian, Gus Marcantonio, is a direct descendant of Odets’ Jacob. They are similarly cut characters on a trajectory of ideological downfall.  Different from Gus, Jacob is a failed revolutionary who talked big “but instead drank a glass tea.” He talked about revolution but didn’t do enough about it. Gus, we’ll find out, is quite different; he’s an Italian-American retired longshoreman and lifetime member of the Communist Party USA, on the frontlines of the worker’s revolution, American-style. And he sees in his own battles won and in his own negotiated victories for the Guaranteed Income, for example, the seeds to his own movement’s undoing, in the midst of a larger attack from the forces of Capitalism challenging his Socialist values.

I simply had not paid attention to the ways that Awake and Sing sets up Kushner’s play so movingly. We start rehearsals for it in 10 days.

Meanwhile, Awake and Sing runs out in Olney through October 19 (only two more weeks!).


“Yentl” Spotlight on Pesha: More Than a Bully!

Just a few of the many, many comments posted last weekend about YENTL–and here are a few focussing on Pesha, the hectoring wife to Avigdor–with our new student subscribers making keen insights as to what marks Pesha as an accomplished woman of commerce, even while chasing Avigdor around the shop with a frying pan for his commercial negligence! The students ask strong artistic questions of playwright Leah Napolin’s choice to present Pesha the way she does, and of our production as to why Pesha comes out characterized so unsympathetically, in contrast to Yentl.  Is it necessary to have a villain (of a sort) in this tale?  Is there more to Pesha than what some are seeing?

Judith Ingber (who plays Pesha), Amy McWilliams and Shanta Parasuraman sing "I Hate Girl Things"

Judith Ingber (who plays Pesha), Amy McWilliams and Shanta Parasuraman sing “I Hate Girl Things”

We share reactions to these observations about Pesha from Susan Wiedman Schneider, founding editor and publisher of Lilith Magazine, a media sponsor on this production, and from the show’s director, Shirley Serotsky.

First two excerpts from the show.  First at their betrothal ceremony:

ZLATEH. What my Pesha needs is a husband to help out in the store. If you’re smart you’ll do it. No one ever got rich from sitting and shaking his head over the Talmud all day! (Party Guests agree.)

AVIGDOR. I’m not a shopkeeper.

PESHA. I’ll teach you how to be one.

AVIGDOR. A shopkeeper is born a shopkeeper.

PESHA. You’ll learn as you go along. The first rule in business is—buy cheap and sell steep!

FEITL. (Proudly) See, what did I tell you? She’ll be a good provider!

…Contrasted with this snippet, from later in their relationship:

PESHA. Put away the soap.

AVIGDOR. Where shall I put it?

PESHA. On the shelves.

AVIGDOR. But the shelves are filled with pots.

PESHA. So take down the pots and put them somewhere else!

AVIGDOR. (With an armload of pots) Where shall I put them?

PESHA. On your head! (AVIGDOR lets the pots drop.) What’s the matter with you? Pick them up!

AVIGDOR. If you speak to me like that again, I’ll walk out!

PESHA. Ha! See how far you get with no money in your pocket.

AVIGDOR. You never give me any.

PESHA. You don’t earn it! (She notices a fish on the floor.) Who’s been in the herring barrel?

AVIGDOR. A woman came in and bought some soap and herring. She said she’d come back and settle with you later.

PESHA. You let her take them without paying? (Screams) Fool! (She runs out.) Help, thief! Thief! (She runs back in.) Idiot, idiot! You’ll be the death of me! (She grabs a ladle and starts to chase him.)

AVIGDOR. Pesha, please …

PESHA. I’ll murder you! I’ll tear you to pieces! (AVIGDOR tumbles over the stool and sits on the floor holding his head.) Who’ll save me from this half-wit?

And now our student comments:

Timothy Sell | September 5, 2014 at 11:58 pm

What is particularly interesting to examine in Leah Napolin’s play adaptation of “Yentl” is the character of Pesha. Pesha is introduced from the very beginning as a widow, whose husband died within the first year of marriage, which is a sign of bad luck. However, more than this, Pesha is seen in the town as a force to be reckoned with when it comes to running a business. She is referred to as more-or-less the breadwinner of her and Avigdoor’s marriage and even publicly scolds Avigdoor when he commits an error at the store. Also, when it comes to the night of their wedding, Pesha is not described as the tender and loving woman to Avigdoor that Hadass strived to achieve with Anshel; Pesha instead seemingly wishes to speed through sex and not bother with Avigdoor’s songs. This is of significance because Hadass was advised by other women of the town to give herself to Anshel in any way he wanted. It can be reasonably inferred then that Pesha, as a woman, was given similar advice. This dynamic Pesha is allowed to maintain in a very strict Jewish society with stringent gender norms intrigues me. After all, whether they are serving meals or being referred to as “footstools,” women are largely seen as servants to men in this play. However, Pesha seems to slightly break free from this as the more traditional role of men to provide for their families falls to her, as she runs a business and receives praise for her ability to make money.

I wish to add a quick note here to say that Pesha definitely does not take on all the stereotypical gender roles of a man in her marriage to Avigdoor. After all, the way Avigdoor and Anshel sexually objectify Pesha’s breasts to compare them to large melons demonstrates they primarily see her for her physical appearance and not for her intelligence in running a business. Pesha is also never seen being allowed to participate in studying or religious practices. But, when compared to the roles of Hadass and the other minor female characters, we see that Pesha certainly takes more liberties as she navigates a society dominated by men and masculine desires.

The question that remains then is why? One speculation is the fact that Pesha has already been married once before. In the time between her first and second marriages, Pesha may have had to provide for herself and consequently prove herself to be a successful businesswoman. Or, since Pesha grew up with a father who was a praised leather dealer, she might have inherited the “family gene” for business and society simply allows her to maintain this role. In any case, although minor, Pesha is a complicated character who, through her actions of the play, provokes much thought on gender roles in a religiously-charged culture.

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YENTL Opens The New Season (part 1)

We began rehearsals for our season opener in the throes of summer – on July 29 – and the playwright Leah Napolin came down from NYC and regaled us with stories of meeting I.B. Singer and working with for three days on her adaptation of his landmark short story. Here’s a choice excerpt from her rehearsal remarks.
10649649_10152669946259883_2948068715227125029_n And as the rehearsal weeks went on, our creative team shared lots of insights and aspirations with a number of great interviewers. Read interviews with the playwright, the composer, the director.

Here’s Lisa Traiger’s interview with our great singer-songwriter composer Jill Sobule in The Forward.

And another feature on the composer courtesy of Theatre Washington

The Washington Post had this incredible feature the weekend before previews began. “‘Yentl’ sings a new tune in a new stage version getting its D.C. premiere!”
10628360_10152669945889883_1989294860516468819_n And one last great feature to share, this time an interview with director Shirley Serotsky, in DC Theatrescene.

There’s more and more background to share, but a lot the rest is in our playbill at the theater and we want to encourage you to refer to your hardcopy of the program in contemplating the great critic Alisa Solomon’s wonderful think piece on “What Becomes An American Jewish Icon Most?”

And there’s my introduction, a welcome to the world of Yentl and why we’ve chosen to open the season with this warm but hardly fuzzing iconic work, rejiggered and highly re-energized for our cultural and political moment. Here’s a bit of what I shared in the program: Continue reading