By Jeanette Friedman
New York Bureau Chief, San Diego Jewish World
MONTCLAIR, New Jersey–It’s amazing when New Yawkers cross the Hudson to go see a show. And when Robert Brustein’s fantastic adaptation of Shlemiel the First was at Montclair State, they got in their cars, rented buses and hied themselves over to the Kassner Theater, where this Yiddish-flavored musical tripped the lights fantastic.
And there were bennies: You don’t yet need your passport to cross the Hudson, parking is just $3.45, and the theater, about 30 minutes from the George Washington Bridge, is gorgeous, the perfect setting for this gem of a play (in English) about the wise men of Chelm, written by Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel Laureate for Literature and teller of Yiddish tales.
An exuberant multicultural cast danced and sang to a wonderful klezmery score (written by Hankus Netsky and Zalmen Mlotek) conducted by Zalmen Mlotek, artistic director of The National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene, who also played the piano. The lively lyrics (by Arnold Weinstein) and choreography to match makes Shlemiel the First, a must-see, energetic romantic comedy with genius staging and choreography from David Gordon (Peak Performances@Montclair–producer
Jill Dombrowski and artistic director Jedidiah Wheeler–in association with The National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene).
Everyone knows that tales of Chelm are morality tales, and this one is no exception. Poor Shlemiel. He just can’t make a living other than being the beadle for the six wise men (Moishe Pipick, Zeinvel Smeckel, Mendel Shmendrick, Dopey Petzel, Zalman Tippish, Sender Shlimazel and a real dummy) so Gronam Ox, head wise man, decides that Shlemiel must leave home to tell the world about what a genius he is. Of course, Shlemiel’s wife is bereft…her husband has to leave town on a mission that could take three years. Gevalt! Who will take care of the kids while she goes to the market to sell radishes–and what will happen to them without his beadle’s income?
Leave it Chaim Rascal to twist the plot and misdirect poor Shlemiel, who gets turned around and comes upon a town that is identical to Chelm–with clones of the wise men and his wife and every other resident in town. Even the kids look identical to his, and then the fun really begins…What to do? What a to do! When a shmatte falls, anything can happen, including making a mitzvah, which in this case the wise men decide is no mitzvah, but a giant sin! How many Chelms are there, after all?
The play is a wry comment on the way family matters are handled by the long-bearded elders of the community, and the impact of their wise decisions on poor Shlemiel’s family are hilarious. Shlemiel (in Yiddish a shlemiel is someone with no luck) is sweetly played by Michael Iannucci. His wife is the delightful and tiny Alice Pleyton, whose voice is delicious, and the wise men are led by the extremely self-important, extremely silly Gronam Ox played to perfection by Jeff Brooks. As erstwhile residents of Chelm, the cast was uncharacteristically brilliant, and in particular was the shape-shifting performance of Kristine Zbornek—who played three roles, each one funnier than the next.
The staging was unique—as props were added and removed and costume and character changes took place right before the audience’s eyes in a uniquely modern ballet. This is a play worth chasing, so contact The National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene at firstname.lastname@example.org
and ask when and where you might be able to catch a performance! (No phone calls, please!)