Monday, January 9, 2012

Klezmer Fable: Shlemiel the First

Shlemiel the First may be the best practically unknown musical comedy of the last twenty years. In the mid-nineties, during his tenure as artistic director of American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Robert Brustein adapted the script from a play Isaac Bashevis Singer had culled from some of his own folk fables. The music by Hankus Netsky and Zalmen Mlotek was written for a klezmer band, with lyrics by Arnold Weinstein, and in a further burst of inspiration Brustein hired the choreographer David Gordon, who helms the witty Pick Up Performance Company, to stage it on a marvelous ramshackle expressionistic set by Robert Israel. It was the highlight of A.R.T.’s 1993-1994 season, and audiences tumbled for it; the company brought it back the following year.

 But when it closed the second time, the show vanished; the infectious songs have never been recorded (though one or two of them have been playing in my head for a decade and a half) and except for a production in San Francisco, as far as I know it’s never been produced again. That is, not until last month, when Gordon restaged it on a modified version of Israel’s set at New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. (The set is pretty much what I remember from 1994, but Skirball’s stage is more compact than the one at A.R.T.’s Loeb Center.) Getting to see it again was an unexpected holiday treat.

Klezmer is European-Jewish proto-jazz music, framed for celebratory occasions, and so exuberant that sitting still when you hear it practically takes an act of will. (When the band strikes up at the end of intermission of Shlemiel, the whole audience claps along.) I didn’t realize how widespread it was in the nineteenth century until, two years ago, I asked the music librarian at College of the Holy Cross, where I teach, to research Jewish wedding music for a production of The Cherry Orchard I was directing – in Chekhov’s play, Ranevskaya hires the local Jewish band she remembers from her youth for a ball she gives in the third act – and all the music he came up with was klezmer. Klezmer has a loopy charm; it makes you feel giddy, as if you’d been hit over the head with a rubber ball. It’s an inspired match for Singer’s Chelm stories, which are ironic and hilarious, and in which the upending of the characters’ preposterously unjustified vanity and obstinacy is accomplished through the playful use of language.

David Gordon & Isaac Bashevis Singer

The title character in Shlemiel the First (played by Michael Iannucci) is a simple-minded beadle who carries around a dreidel the size of a tea kettle that he consults whenever he has a decision to make. (As any Jewish child knows, a dreidel is a spinning toy, highly visible at Chanukah, with Hebrew letters printed on its four sides.) His employers are the supposedly wise men of the town of Chelm (Singer’s tales are often set in tiny Polish shtetls like the one in which he grew up), who are actually credulous idiots. When Zalman Tippish (Bob Ader), a wealthy merchant from a neighboring village, consults the council of wise men about how to avoid death, it’s Shlemiel who comes up with a solution: no rich man has ever lived in Chelm, so no rich man has ever died there, ergo Zalman Tippish will be protected from death if he moves into Chelm. The witless council wholeheartedly endorses this dictum and Gronam Ox ((Jeff Brooks), the head of the wise men, takes credit for it. Then he sends Shlemiel out on a journey to spread the word about his wisdom around the world. But he doesn’t get very far. The first night on the road he encounters a trickster named Chaim Rascal (Darryl Winslow) who waits for him to fall asleep, then steals the latkes his wife Tryna Ritza (Amy Warren) has packed to sustain him through his wanderings and, for amusement, turns his boots around. When Shlemiel wakes up he follows the direction of his boots back into Chelm, but he’s so wedded to the idea that his boots have led him away from home that he decides that there must be two Chelms. (That’s the act one curtain line.) His family and neighbors, he assumes, are doubles of the citizens of the other Chelm, Chelm One. And since Gronam Ox is no brighter than he is, he and the council proclaim that for him and Tryna Ritza to sleep together would be adultery.

Amy Warren & Michael Iannucci
The script is a joyous doodle. Singer wrote some of the most profound fiction of the twentieth century, but in his lighter prose he puts quotation marks around the characters’ distinctly Old World-Jewish fatalism; you recognize the world you’re in when Tryna Ritza sings, in the opening number, “Wake-Up Song,” “If you’re not happy with what you got / Go and get happy with what you got.” But there’s a fairy-tale sweetness to this narrative – a sense that humility and contentment with your lot can lead you back to the essential rightness of God’s world. “God knows what she sees in him,” the women of the town comment (in song) on Tryna Ritza’s marriage to Shlemiel, “And God’s not wrong.” She knows he’s a dope, she knows he doesn’t work very hard, but when Gronam Ox sends him on his mission she misses him even before he’s gone and she’s delighted when he returns the next day, even though he’s adamant in his insistence that he isn’t her husband. The musical’s emotional center is their love for each other, which temporary absence and alienation strengthen and which, predictably, conquers the moral dictum of the wise men. At the end Chaim Rascal reveals his trickery and that and other evidence compel Gronam Ox to admit he’s been a fool. “When a person thinks he’s dumb, he’s smart,” his wife Yenta Pesha (Kristine Zbornik) declares: it’s the motto of the play. (In Shlemiel the First the women are the only ones who possess any natural wisdom: Yenta Pesha is continually rolling her eyes over her husband’s dunderheaded pronouncements and waxing sarcastic over Chelm’s conviction that “from the mind of God to his / Is only a hop, skip and a jump.” The only male character who demonstrates any kind of smarts is Chaim Rascal, and he uses them purely to make mischief.)

The style of the production is as captivating as the material. Israel’s set, which is divided between interior (stage left) and exterior (stage right), rests on a level that looks like a bent folding table; there are an abstract expressionist backdrop for the woods and a pair of lopsided walls for the council chamber, and the woods are represented by a couple of bare trees and red papier-mâché rocks of various sizes. The bed shared by Shlemiel and Mrs. Shlemiel is upright, with the actors leaning against it, like the one the teen protagonist pops out of in the opening number of the Broadway musical Hairspray. When Shlemiel travels in and out of Chelm, the stage hands suggest his journey by dragging the rocks and the trees and some of the musicians, too, across the stage on rugs. The moment when the musicians leave the pit and get into the action is one of the show’s high points. There are eight marvelous musicians (the pianist, Mlotek himself in the evenings and Michael Larsen at matinees, doubles as conductor) and an ensemble of eight actors, most of whom play two or three roles that sometimes require them to cross-dress; the peasant skirts Catherine Zuber (another alumna of the A.R.T. production) designed for the female characters come equipped with cloth breasts. It’s especially fun to watch Warren, with the help of a stage hand, whip in and out of her costume as one of the six wise men – when she has to return to her role as Yenta Pesha, a floppy manikin stands in for her – and to see Zbornik and Winslow impersonate the Shlemiels’ small children, Gittel and Mottel. In act two they sing pleadingly to their father, who refuses to admit that they’re his kids, “Papa / Papa / Please don’t be meshugah” (the Yiddish word for crazy), and their bopping physicality and put-on voices make you think of the Munchkins. The cast is generally terrific, but Warren (who played Daisy in the off-Broadway musical The Adding Machine a few seasons back) steals every scene she’s in. She has a sensational belt and a larger-than-life comic presence. She made me think of the great Nancy Walker, whom I was lucky enough to see on stage opposite Phil Silvers in Do Re Mi when I was a boy. I can’t think of a higher compliment.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny ReviewThe Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


  1. Great review - I just saw the production at NYC and really enjoyed it. But FYI, you have a caption which mixes a character's name (Tryna Ritza) with an actor's (Michael Iannucci).

  2. Thanks for your comments and spotting the error. It's now been corrected.