'Shirley Valentine' Gets a Yiddish Twist

In this one-woman production of Willy Russell's play, the highly successful comedian Odeya Koren demonstrates that she is above all a superb dramatic actor.

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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Odeya Koren as Shirley Valentine. A transcendent human moment, funny and moving.Credit: Gerard Allon
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

Two works by the English dramatist Willy Russell are currently being staged in Israeli theaters. Beit Lessin is showing us how to go about “Educating Rita,” while the Yiddishpiel Theater confronts us with the self-discovery experienced by “Shirley Valentine.” She is a married woman of 50 who lives in a London suburb with a husband for whom she’s transparent. Out of sheer boredom she talks to the wall (the fourth wall – the one between her and the audience) until she plucks up the courage to take a trip to Greece and discovers her relationship with herself.

Odeya Koren, who plays the self-discovering Shirley, writes in the program that in truth “we are all Shirley.” What she means is that the need – if not the necessity – to discover who we are, at some stage of life, is not a gender, cultural or linguistic need, but a very human one. And just as one needn’t be a mother or Jewish to be a “Jewish mother” – a Greek tavern owner can be a Jewish mother, too – it makes no difference if the play is in Yiddish and about a woman of 50 who discovers “signs of life” in her mind and body. It’s about each and every one of us.

Shirley Valentine is a woman scorned and disdained by her close surroundings (and by herself) until she has an awakening and is liberated. Ephraim Sidon adapted the play, and if memory serves, has introduced quite a few changes, especially at the end. Koren, a highly successful Israeli standup comic and equally at home in the theater and on television, performs the one-woman production in Yiddish, her parents’ language, which she herself reviled and was ashamed of. We discover (and maybe she does, too) that she is not only a skilled comedian but also a superb dramatic actor. (Something of this is already discernible in her performance in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” a current co-production of the Haifa Municipal Theater and the Cameri Theater. Let’s hope that the Israeli theater will be able to put her qualities to good use.)

The decision to mount this play is simultaneously wrongheaded and appropriate. “Shirley Valentine” maneuvers adroitly between comedy and pathos in order to find truth and feeling – and in Yiddish, of all things, because, after all, everything sounds funnier in Yiddish. A case in point is the expression “talking to the wall,” (redn tzu der vant), almost the ultimate Yiddish phrase. Yet it’s precisely this laughter, when Shirley talks to herself and to the wall and to the audience – about her clitoris, for example (and yes, it comes out a lot funnier in Yiddish) – that makes it possible for both Koren and the play to arrive at that transcendent human moment in which we are occupied not only with “how others see us” and “what others think about us,” but with ourselves.

Oddly, given that we’re dealing with characters and relationships, and with Yiddish, and with what’s funny and moving, the loveliest moments in the play, to my mind, were those in which Koren allowed herself to pause. These were moments of non-speech, non-gesture, non-acting – moments of pure experiencing, moments of silence of a lone actor on the stage: not in Hebrew, not in Yiddish, but in the language of emotion. Which is perhaps the only truly important language in theater.

Next performances of “Shirley Valentine” (Yiddishpiel production in Yiddish, with Hebrew and Russian translation) at Arison Hall of the Arts, Tel Aviv, January 5, 6, February 9, 2015, at 8 P.M. Reservations and further information at (03) 525-4660, ext. 1 or 2.