A Sholem Aleichem Novel About Love, Theater and Yiddish Adapted for the Stage, and Quite Successfully, Too

With limited means and much sophisticated naivete, the Yiddishpiel Theater is presenting a fascinating melodrama that takes place behind the scenes of Jewish life more than a century ago

Doron Tavory and Jonathan Rozen in 'Wandering Stars.'
Gerard Allon

The headline might sound like a left-handed compliment, but it’s germane. The melodramatic plot of “Wandering Stars,” the theatrical adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s well-known novel of the same name (in the original Yiddish it could also mean “Errant Stars”) ends when the pair of lovers, meeting after a forced separation of 10 years, decide, despite a potpourri of pain, grief and understanding, to try to revive their relationship. In this world, they realize, the best one can aspire to is to be “quite happy.” It’s an example of Jewish sobriety.

Theater lovers are drawn especially to stories about the behind-the-scenes world of the theater. The Sholem Aleichem novel, about the road taken by the youngsters Leybl and Reyzl from a shtetl in Romania to the world’s stages of opera and (Jewish) theater is a smart, riveting tale that deals with Jewish life and the Jewish theater, as well as with people who are searching for themselves and for happiness.

Director Aya Kaplan and playwright Joshua Sobol have adapted the novel in a style best described as “sophisticated naivete.” With limited means and on a limited stage, they succeed in telling the tale, with its characters, plot reversals and ideological themes (old and new, Judaism, secularism and theater, over- and under-stated, Yiddish and universal). They are not afraid to plunge into emotion and gushing melodrama, but at the same time are able to create simple yet impressive theatrical effects, almost alienated, by means of prop boxes that serve as carts (scenery and costumes: Judit Aharon). The use of simple but effective movement allows an almost epic tale to unfold, covering 10 years and a multitude of locales, most of them theater stages in different cities – all on one small stage in the Tzavta theater in Tel Aviv, where I saw the play. And, as befits theater within theater, the story also takes place in the auditorium itself.

Being about Jewish life and Yiddish theater in search of its path, the play is in Yiddish (with Hebrew and Russian surtitles). I don’t speak Yiddish, but I was drawn into the story, because it is performed with tremendous verve and the staging is adept. Above all, the production displays a great love for Yiddish and for the theater, to which all the main characters in the play are addicted, along with the creative artists involved and a large part of the audience at the premiere performance I attended.

The right flavor

Because this is in essence a story about theater people, most of whom are ham actors at heart, much of the play’s success derives from that of the actors, in roles large and small. Israel Treistman, representing the old Jewish world, vividly portrays the father of the protagonist; Miri Ragendorfer serves up a prima donna-like performance in the role of the Jewish prima donna; and Irma Stepanov is heart-wrenching in the part of the abandoned Zlatke. Anat Atzmon drives the plot forward confidently (the dress she wears in the second act is indeed impressive; less so in the first), and the veteran Yaacov Bodo, as the theater manager, brings to the stage the right flavor of “that” Yiddish theater in which the plot unfolds and which the characters want to change somehow.

The heart of the drama is in the hands of two youngsters and one unerring star that does not wander: Hilit Daitch possesses a captivating voice and natural presence, and Jonathan Rozen is fine as the loving actor who is torn between his love for himself, for the theater and for his boyhood belle. All the strings are pulled by Doron Tavory, the Jewish Mephistopheles, the ultimate ham actor, who brings to the stage a grotesque presence, releases the throttle and infuses the events of the theater with an almost satanic thrust.

In short, I sat through this two-act play as an innocent viewer who just wanted to be regaled with more. I saw the pretense and was magnetized by it. At some place in my mind I was vaguely aware that theater like this in the Israel of 2016 is the periphery of the periphery. Also that the Yiddishpiel Theater knows it, and couldn’t care less.

Upcoming performances of “Wandering Star” are being held in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Netanya (this week) and Bat Yam (March 6). For details see (in English): www.yiddishpiel.co.il/en/our-shows/wandering-stars.html