AGENTN

New Yiddish Rep and Der LufTeaterof Strasbourg France presented New York’s only Yiddish theatrical presentation of the 2011 fall season, a new play adapted from Sholom Aleichem’s one act Agentn, which takes place on a train, and his Ayzenbahn Geshichtes, stories centered around train travel. The piece was workshopped in New York last October, and presented in a series of staged readings in November. Adapted by Rafael Goldwaser, the plays final form was shaped by the collaboration of the ensemble and the rehearsal process itself.
‘Agentn’ of Yesterday and Today
By Boris Sandler
Editor of The Yiddish ForwardTo perform Yiddish theater today, you need a lot of money, or a lot of ambition. The New Yiddish Rep theater company, led by David Mandelbaum, has the latter.Mandelbaum is an actor and director who also plays most of the other roles a theater company requires. Like any typical theater person, he is always on the lookout for creative talent, and when he searches, he usually finds. For “Agentn,” the New Yiddish Rep’s latest production, Mandelbaum found five talented collaborators: director Moshe Yassur, clarinetist Dmitri Slepovitch and actors Yelena Shmulenson, Rafael Goldwaser and Shane Baker.The play is based on the works of Sholem Aleichem, which makes for good theater, even though Sholem Aleichem himself was not a particularly impressive dramatist. The different parts of the play, which draw on several of Sholem Aleichem’s stories, are unified by a small-town fortune-seeker who travels by train through different stations, trying to find “clients” and make a ruble.Goldwaser contributes several monologues he has already performed in his own productions, which are brought within the larger narrative of the play. This unifying task fell to Yassur, whose challenge was to make the piece more than just a series of readings, even though the actors have their scripts onstage. Yasur managed this by means of the mise-en-scène, props, jokes, contact with the audience and, most of all, music.Music, however, is perhaps the wrong word for it. Rather, Yassur uses a technique in which the clarinet, played by Slepovitch, participates as its own character in the drama. It inserts itself into the dialogue, sometimes in discontent, sometimes in pity, sometimes in reproach. It is even possible that the clarinet serves as a sort of internal voice, saying that not everything a person says is always what he’s thinking.

Still, putting Sholem Aleichem on stage is no simple matter. There is especially the danger of falling into tastelessness and theater clichés. Fortunately, with “Agentn,” that doesn’t happen.

In earlier years you used to meet people who were attached heart and soul to Yiddish culture. They would do anything in order to help talented writers, musicians, directors, theater troupes, and other creative people realize their projects. The question remains, has this type of bold person disappeared from the Yiddish horizon?

— Translated by Ezra Glinter

Rhinoceros (Nozhorn)

Oh! A Nozhorn!

‘The other day Trump used the phrase “my followers.”
That says it all. Every theater in the country that cares about freedom, human rights, and our way of life ought to produce this play. Hitler came to power in 1933 with only 36% of the vote. By 1939 he brought on a World War. Lets hope we don’t start seeing rhinoceroses in the streets. The folks in Charlottesville already have.

GOD OF VENGEANCE​

Questions of guilt and retribution gnaw ceaselessly at the heart of Yankl (Shane Baker), the central character in Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance,” which is being given a timely revival by the New Yiddish Rep at LaMaMa. A pious Orthodox Jew, Yankl makes his living in what remains a highly unorthodox profession: He owns a brothel that sits below the apartment in which his family lives.

Asch’s 1907 play, esteemed and widely produced in Europe, caused a scandal when it was staged in New York, ultimately opening on Broadway in 1923 and creating such a ruckus that the entire company was hauled into court on charges of indecency. The timeliness of this production — performed in Yiddish with English supertitles — has everything to do with the arrival on Broadway this spring of Paula Vogel’s “Indecent,” a powerful drama depicting the tumultuous history of the play and including some passages from it.

But “God of Vengeance” holds the stage formidably in its own right, primarily for its forthright depiction of the love between Yankl’s teenage daughter, Rifkele (Shayna Schmidt), and Manke (Melissa Weisz), one of the women who work in the brothel. The play is remarkable, too, in its nuanced depiction of Manke and her fellow prostitutes Basha (Mira Kessler) and Reyzl (Rachel Botchan). Although some may find that Basha’s genial acceptance of her lot is romanticized, she frankly boasts that she has freedoms, even living as she does, that would be denied her in the hidebound community where she grew up.

Rifkele, played with lovely sensitivity by Ms. Schmidt, yearns for freedom, too — the freedom to love Manke — but her father is busy arranging a good marriage for her, with the help of Reb Eli (a wryly funny David Mandelbaum), the matchmaker, who blithely brushes away Yankl’s almost obsessive sense of guilt over his business, assuring him that as long as he’s a good Jew, everything will be fine.

To redeem himself in the eyes of God, Yankl has paid to have a Torah scroll created, and his most fervent hope is to find Rifkele a respectable Jewish husband, as if by raising her strictly and setting her up in a traditional marriage, he could expunge the sense of his own sinfulness that festers in his soul. Mr. Baker imbues the character with a tormented single-mindedness that neatly defines his predicament.

The production is deftly directed by Eleanor Reissa, who is terrific in the role of Yankl’s wife, Sarah, herself a former worker in Yankl’s brothel. Now dutifully playing the role of subservient wife, Sarah properly wears a wig when necessary. It is Sarah who tries desperately to bring Rifkele back home when she steals away with Manke. They are enticed by Yankl’s procurer Shloyme (a wonderfully slimy Luzer Twersky) and his girlfriend Hindel (Caraid O’Brien, making something fairly fresh of the hooker with a heart of, well, tinsel if not gold), to start up a new stable.

The production is somewhat cramped on the small stage at LaMaMa — the cluttered set almost resembles a used-furniture shop — and the contemporary setting adds nothing much to the play. But the cast’s commitment brings the work’s flashes of lyricism to powerful life. Most moving is the scene in which the women exchange confidences as rain pours down, and customers are sparse. Basha, played with marvelous grace by Ms. Kessler, has no regrets for fleeing the marriage that was being forced upon her, but she is still haunted by visions of her dead mother.

Manke calls to Rifkele, who sneaks out of the house and joins her in the rain. They share a tender scene in which Manke playfully pretends to be Rifkele’s bridegroom and impulsively implores her to come away with her so they can share a life together. The purity of the affection between them is beautifully played, and Asch’s sympathetic depiction of their love is affecting in its honesty. Even writing in the early years of the last century, he makes it implicitly clear that in his view, it is not God’s vengeance that Rifkele and Manke need to fear — only man’s.

Awake And Sing

The New Yiddish Rep’s current production of Awake and Sing, Clifford Odets’ 1935 American masterpiece, is a 21st century miracle. It validates Artistic Director David Mandelbaum’s mishegas/obsession of establishing a Yiddish acting company performing modern plays, either written or translated into Yiddish, that attract diverse appreciative audiences of many ages, which describes the ticket holders at the performance I attended. – Theater Pizzazz

Clifford Odets

Clifford Odets began his career in 1931 as an actor with The Group Theater, a New York company of which he was a founding member. He shortly turned to writing and his first play for the Group, Waiting for Lefty (1935), immediately launched him as the most celebrated American playwright of the 1930s. Lefty, as well as four other major Broadway productions in that decade, introduced theater audiences to subject matter and language that had never before been heard on the American stage. This work deeply influenced generations of American playwrights to follow. Odets’ other best-known plays are Golden Boy, The Country Girl, The Flowering Peach, The Big Knife, Rocket to the Moon, Paradise Lost and Clash by Night. Screenplay credits include Sweet Smell of Success, Humoresque, The General Died at Dawn, None but the Lonely Heart and The Story on Page One. Directing credits include both None but the Lonely Heart and The Story on Page One.

Yosl Rakover Speaks To God

For twenty years the story of Yosl Rakover was believed to be an eyewitness account of the ghetto’s last hours, and the true story of a pious Jew whose fate it was to die fighting the beasts that destroyed his world. In the hours before his death he reconsiders his relationship with G-d and concludes that although his relationship with G-d has changed, his faith in Him remains, and his love for Him burns as strongly as ever. The story was actually written in 1946, by Tzvi Kolitz, a young Palestinian who as a delegate to the World Zionist Congress traveled extensively to speak on behalf of the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine. His clandestine purpose was to recruit fighters for the Irgun, of which he was a member. While in Argentina, he was asked to write an article for a Yiddish paper in Buenas Aires for their special Yom kippur edition. The result was Yosl Rakover Speaks to G-d. Through a set of bizzare circumstances the story was republished in an Israeli Yiddish journal without his name on it, and was assumed to be real. It has since been recognized as one of the classics of Holocaust literature, been translated into many languages, and been the subject of essays by theologians and philosophers. Adapted for the stage and performed by David Mandelbaum, directed by Amy Coleman, it makes for powerful and compelling theater. In Yiddish with English Supertitles.

Death Of A Salesman

“The use of Yiddish in this production is not just a gimmick, but enhances the storytelling in beautiful and clever ways. If you’ve seen Death of a Salesman before, this production will offer a unique viewpoint, and will allow you to rediscover this classic play in an interesting way.” – Theatre is Easy<br/><br/>”It’s been sixty-six years since Death of a Salesman opened at the Morosco Theatre. Since that time the drama has come to be seen as a penetrating indictment of the American Dream and one of the best American plays of the 20th century. However, New Yiddish Rep’s Yiddish translation opens up whole new vistas of interpretation…Last season, New Yiddish Rep produced a Yiddish version of Waiting for Godot that made the play live in surprising new ways. After seeing this version of Death of a Salesman, it’s not hard to speculate on how much better even this great classic might have been if Miller had been more in touch with his roots.” – Curtain Up<br/><br/>…”These are Lomans fit to bruise some hearts…language in Moshe Yassur’s production is no barrier, thanks to the fineness of the performances…” – New York Times<br/><br/>”Yiddish Breathes New Life Into <em>Death Of A Salesman</em>…This is Yiddish that just is, with no justifications, explanations or apologies. It’s a fascinating thought experiment — and also great theater.” – Forward

2 X Wolf

2 X Wolf
An evening of one acts by Wolf Mankowitz
The Irish Hebrew Lesson
and
The Bespoke Overcoat

“Wolf Mankiwitz was the son of a Russian emigrant, Solomon Mankowitz, who sold antiques and second-hand books in an open-air East End market and who imbued his son with a love of both.”

“A renaissance man.” – Richard Burton

“A sort of East End Joyce.” – Anthony Burgess

“A f**k ’em Jew.” -Frederic Raphael!

THE INDEPENDANT

Obituary: Wolf Mankowitz

THE JEWISH community of London’s East End has produced an amazing variety of talent. Some have made their careers in the commercial and financial worlds, while the very significant contributors to the arts have tended to be many-faceted. Joan Littlewood, Steven Berkoff and Mark Anthony Turnage are just a few of the names that spring to mind, but even among such exceptional people, Wolf Mankowitz stands out as a strong and individual voice.

When London first became aware of him as a writer in the early 1950s, he had already made a name for himself as a dealer and authority on antique porcelain, especially Wedgwood. His experience came from working in street markets, then in his own lock-up shop, a practical schooling that he put to good account, becoming both a scholar and (with R.G. Haggar) the editor of the Concise Encyclopaedia of English Pottery and Porcelain (1957). In 1953 he had published his definitive book, The Portland Vase and the Wedgwood Copies, which paid much attention to the copies of that famous Greek antiquity made by Josiah Wedgwood.

Mankowitz’s special talent was to make an abstruse and specialised subject read like a detective story, and The Portland Vase sold well. Wedgwood, even in mass-produced modern copies, remained fashionable and Mankowitz cashed in by opening a glittering new shop in the Piccadilly Arcade in London.

At the same time he was using his former experiences, both as a street trader and as a bright young boy with an observant eye – not least for the main chance – to write short novels, which were published by Andre Deutsch; these became very successful. Make Me An Offer (about an antique dealer in search of the Portland Vase) appeared in 1952 and A Kid For Two Farthings a year later. They were both filmed in 1954, directed by Cyril Frankel and Carol Reed respectively.

Next Mankowitz began to write for the theatre and scored a considerable success with The Bespoke Overcoat (1953), in which David Kossoff played Morry, at the Arts Theatre in London, a role he repeated many times. Nobody appeared to notice at the time that the play was an update of a Gogol short story. In 1958 he wrote a musical, Expresso Bongo, based on the career of Tommy Steele, which was filmed the following year.

He followed it with a great outpouring of novels, short stories, plays, musicals and film scripts (including The Millionairess in 1960 and the James Bond film Casino Royale in 1967), some of which were successful with the public. With his ebullient self-confident personality he was always able to convince producers, but in spite of the volume of work, by the mid-Sixties his name had lost much of its lustre. Most of his new plays, especially the larger-scale ones, did not stay long on the boards.

Exceptions were adaptations of French plays or other work done in collaboration, such as the film The Long and the Short and the Tall (1961), directed by Leslie Norman, which was based on Willis Hall’s stage play. Others worth noting are the novels My Old Man’s a Dustman (1956) and A Night With Casanova (1991), The Mendelman Fire and Other Stories (short stories, 1957), and his documentary on Yiddish cinema in the 1930s, Almonds and Raisins (1984). The influence of Yiddish life and lore is evident in much of his work.

Born in Bethnal Green in 1924, Mankowitz was educated at East Ham Grammar School and Downing College, Cambridge, where he read English and was tutored by F.R. Leavis. During the Second World War he served as a volunteer coal miner and in the Army.

In addition to fiction and drama, he wrote books about Dickens, whose observation of urban life was not dissimilar from his own (Dickens of London, 1976), Edgar Allen Poe (The Extraordinary Mr Poe, 1978), and some historical subjects. He published a small volume of poetry in 1971.

Visits to Central America inspired his work and in 1971 he became Honorary Consul to the Republic of Panama in Dublin, a post which gave him some amusement, but little revenue.

In the Seventies he retired to a comfortable house and small property on the south-west coast of Ireland to continue writing and to take advantage of the government’s generosity to writers, who pay no tax. There he turned to art and began to make collages; some have been exhibited in Dublin and London.

In 1982, he took a post teaching theatre at the University of New Mexico as well as being Adjunct Professor of English there. He stayed until the late Eighties before moving back to Ireland.

Wolf Mankowitz was a man of many parts with a voracious appetite for knowledge, an outgoing personality, attracted to women, a good talker, with an underlying interest in philosophy which developed particularly during his illness from cancer in his last years. Much of his work shows an ironic sense of humour, an understanding of human motivation and weakness, and a compassion for those unable to rise from the underside of society.

The works that are likely to survive longest, and which are most often revived in small theatres by such enthusiastic character actors as Leonard Fenton, are the early plays, and The Irish Hebrew Lesson (1978), written about the Black and Tans, although the author had the IRA in mind.

His compulsion towards success marred work that with more attention and time would have been better, but he became stoical about that at the end. At his best he was a craftsman with an ability to communicate with his public in all mediums and to make the complex simple and interesting.

Cyril Wolf Mankowitz, writer: born London 7 November 1924; married 1944 Ann Seligmann (three sons, and one son deceased); died Durrus, Co Cork 20 May 1998.

The Big Bupkis

For more information on the show, see these reviews in nytheatre.com , The Jewish Standard , and Backstage . For excerpts of his performance, see here and here . “The Big Bupkis!” mixes English and Yiddish, with English supertitles.” Kansas City native Shane Bertram Baker, widely recognized as the leading matinée idol in the Yiddish theater today, is acknowledged to be the first non-Jew (or Gentile) to ever get this far. How he became fluent in Yiddish; how he became a fixture in New York’s booming Yiddish vaudeville community; how he became the executive director of the Congress for Jewish Culture (an esteemed Yiddish literary organization); and how he amassed credits as an actor, director, magician, and puppeteer of such accomplishment are all richly described and illustrated in this fascinating show.

Vartn Af Godot

“I’ve recently seen it in English with septuagenarians Sir Patrick Stewart as Vladimir (Didi) and Sir Ian McKellen as Estragon (Gogo) on Broadway and with thirtysomething Irish actors Marty Rea as Didi and Aaron Monaghan as Gogo in the Druid’s adaptation at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival. I heard Bill Irwin discuss the play at length in his one-man presentation On Beckett last year at the Irish Rep. But none of that prepared me for the NYR version, in which Beckett’s existential antiheroes Vladimir and Estragon are portrayed as a pair of alter kockers, heavily bearded old Jewish men complaining about life… Vartn af Godot will continue to bring happiness to theatergoers of all religious — or nonreligious — persuasions”
-Mark Rifkin, This Week In New York

“It’s not the text, in English or Yiddish, that makes this production work. It’s the feel of the characters. In fact, if you just watch the actors, and let the show wash over you, you’ll get a lot out of it… In some ways, this is the most likable Waiting for Godot imaginable.”
-Julia Polinsky, TheatreScene.com

“Director Muszkatblit has assembled a strong quartet that delivers Beckett’s worldview with pathos, hitting exactly the right tone. Mandlebaum’s Gogo can let out a wail that mines the very heart of suffering; Rosen is his ideal counterweight. Together, they capture the pain and friendship of daily existence… The New Yiddish Rep, which staged a remarkable Death of a Salesman in 2015, has scored again. Its Waiting For Godot is intimate and emotionally raw — this version is not to be missed.”
-Fern Siegel, Travelers USA Notebook

“This is a Waiting for Godot that is closest to Beckett’s original intentions—a view of the world as poignant, heartbreaking, funny and ultimately futile.”
-Joel Benjamin, TheaterScene.net

“We may never know if Beckett envisioned that his most talked-about play would be translated into Yiddish in the 2000’s. But one thing is for sure: The playwright, who was notoriously protective about this renegade piece, would be proud.”
-Jed Ryan, Lavender After Dark

“Catch this production, and you’ll swear the story was meant to be told in Yiddish, because the supertitles tell you what the actors say, but the Yiddish shows you how the characters feel.”
-Andrew Andrew, Opplaud New York

“Penetrating and intense… Beckett’s masterwork remains potent. Indeed, the play hammers an essential point and serves as a salient reminder that there are no saviors. As the truism—sadly of unknown origin—reminds us, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
-Eleanor J Bader, Theatre Is Easy

“Director Ronit Muszkatblit’s version has to be one of the bleakest in recent memory. While the approach may not appeal to casual theatergoers, Beckett devotees will find much to savor… an intriguing new perspective on a familiar and well-worn play.”
-James Wilson, OffOffOnline

“A terrific production down at the 14th Street Y. If you are intimidated by Waiting for Godot the reading (super-titles) actually helps a lot… and it is quite funny… The cast is extraordinary as well… if you’ve been afraid of Waiting for Godot now is the time to go!”
-Peter Filichia, Broadway Radio