Not Out to Save Yiddish Theater, Just to Put on a Good Show

Hanoch Levin’s play ‘Solomon Grip’ works well in Yiddish, reflecting themes like death.

In the 1980s, one of the highlights at the parties thrown by theater people would be a Hanoch Levin monologue translated into Yiddish.

It hit exactly the right note and was usually hilariously funny. Since then, plays by one of Israel’s leading Hebrew playwrights, who died in 1999, have also been performed by a professional cast in Polish − in which they also sound great − and now “Solomon Grip,” one of his early plays, will be performed at Yiddishpiel, Israel’s Yiddish theater troupe.

Israeli author Yitzhak Laor ‏(who also contributes to Haaretz’s opinion pages‏) writes in the program that this Yiddish-language production is important because of the Yiddish foundation of the linguistic and emotional syntax of Levin’s characters and the fundamental themes of Levin’s oeuvre as shown in this play. These themes include the Freudian nature of couplehood ‏(in this case, there is an uneasy shift between the small, sickly, miserable Solomon’s husband-wife relationship with Partziploha and the mother-son relationship‏ between them) and the concept of the rejected friend ‏(Yehoshua‏, Solomon’s brother). There is also the characters’ adherence to, and struggle with, titles and labels ‏(Dr. Barmolloy and Glechte the singer‏) and of course, there’s death, without which no Levin play is complete.

No less important is the fact that, with this musical comedy, the Yiddishpiel is not revisiting its self-proclaimed role as savior of a vanishing culture but is rather engaged in an authentic artistic pursuit, namely, tackling an interesting play in an interesting way.

One could perhaps say that the pace of the play is a little slow under Yoram Falk’s direction ‏(partly due to the set changes‏), but there is no doubt that the Falk did a good job guiding them on how to flesh out the characters clearly. This was helped in no small measure by the costumes designed by Merav Natanel-Danon.

Israel Treistman plays the brother Yehoshua, a ridiculous, touching character; Yuval Rapaport is the singer, the ultimate outsider who is dragged into the plot and supposedly emerges unscathed; and Anabella ‏(the actress just goes by one name‏) is Partziploha, a figure from the era in which the Levinesque woman was the victim rather than the victimizer.

Andrey Kashker is excellent in the role of Dr. Barmolloy, who is puffed up with self-importance and wonderfully light on his feet ‏(choreography by Tzachi Patish‏), yet has not lost his human touch.

Yaacov Bodo is the personification of the Levinesque hero because he approaches the part in a totally straight way, such that even the most outlandish behavior − whether feigning illness or regressing to a child-like state − reveals a small human tragedy. The result is that one laughs a lot during the performance, but in the end one remembers Solomon’s pain and his brother’s injury.

Misha Blecharovitz composed the music and plays the piano; he has many Levin hours under his belt.

Although “Solomon Grip” was originally written in Hebrew, this is truly a Yiddish play, featuring simultaneous translation into Hebrew via headphones and on surtitles. Somehow the result is not only funnier than in Hebrew but also more apt.

“Solomon Grip” by Hanoch Levin, at Yiddishpiel theater in Tel Aviv. Directed by Yoram Falk. Translation into Yiddish: Avishay Fish. Set design: Alexander Lisiansky. Costumes: Merav Natanel-Danon. Showing across the country through March 16.

Alon Gerard