Served Raw, Garnished with Jews
the writings of Sholem Aleichem
Shane Baker, Allen Lewis
Rickman, and Yelena Shmulenson have lovingly crafted Tevye Served Raw,
Garnished with Jews, an homage to Sholem
Aleichem+. He wrote the stories that were the basis for Fiddler on the Roof,
the most famous Jewish story ever put on stage. Goyim everywhere know Tevye,
his family, his problems. Even in flyover states, Fiddler gets revived
in community theaters and high school productions, and let’s not forget how
many Broadway versions there have been over the years.
Unless you’re fond of Jewish
writers, though, you may not know that Tevye’s creator also wrote literary
criticism, satire, stories, novels, plays, and song lyrics. Sholem Aleichem has
been called the “Jewish Mark Twain,” and he’s a superb storyteller.
We need stories; they keep
us human. And we need storytellers. Without a good story, theater may be
eye-filling, engaging, spectacular, but it lacks heart. In Tevye Served Raw,
Garnished with Jews, we get splendid stories, superbly acted by all three
cast members. Here, we get a tear in the eye, belly laughs, character galore.
Not to mention: here, we get Yiddish.
Do you need to understand
Yiddish in order to enjoy Tevye Served Raw? Nope. Captioning and
translation make it possible for those of us who don’t know a schlemiel from a
schlemazel to understand everything. For that matter, the actors are so good,
it’s a pleasure to watch them work in English, but also in Yiddish, even
without reading the captions. Yes, they’re that good. Astonishingly so.
The three actors work
seamlessly together on what is clearly a labor of love, giving Aleichem’s
stories a new life on the stage. In Tevye Served Raw Baker, Rickman, and
Shmulenson sometimes speak directly to the audience, talking about Aleichem’s
work and life, and sometimes, they’re interacting with each other with total
commitment. Rickman’s direction works so seamlessly and beautifully, it’s
invisible – everything just flows.
Baker, Allen Lewis Rickman, Yelena Shmulenson
Rickman in particular shines
in this show, although it’s hard to assess one performance as better than
another. His sad/wise Tevye touches the heart, but as the translator between
Baker and Shmulenson, he really shines. Face, body, gesture, voice: Rickman hilariously
switches back and forth from one side of the aisle to the other, making the
translation pure magic. You watch Yelena; you listen to Rickman; you watch
Baker; you hear Rickman, you miss nothing. It’s a masterpiece of acting.
Baker, Yelena Shmulenson photos by Jonathan Smith
That’s not to dismiss
Shmulenson, an actress so accomplished and yet natural, you’d think she was
someone’s Tante Bessie come to life. Or Shane Baker, who bills himself as, “…
the best-loved Episcopalian on the Yiddish stage today,” and is by turns
utterly gossipy, imperious, or hapless, as called for.
Tevye Served Raw, Garnished
with Jews offers up further tales of Tevye, the perplexed dairyman
of Fiddler on the Roof, fleshing out Fiddler’s familiar story
arc. The comic Tevye of musical fame is not this sadder Tevye, who wrestles
with his love for Chava, the daughter who chooses to marry a non-Jew. In the
first dramatized story, they argue, before she marries; in the second, he
grovels before the Russian Orthodox priest who instructs her as she converts,
and at last, after the Russians evict the Jews from their homes, the married,
convert Chava wishes to return to her Jewish family. Tevye’s terrible dilemma
will pull all your heartstrings. Every single one.
The non-Tevye stories – in
effect, the “garnish” of the show’s title – sweep from a couple of gossips on a
train, dissecting their neighbors (“Strange Jews on a Train”) to a hapless,
hopeless “businessman” failing his way through Europe (“The Yiddish Sisyphus.”)
But the crown of the evening comes when the cast presents “The Stepmother’s
Trash Talk.” Apparently, Sholem Aleichem’s stepmother had a vocabulary of
curses so sweeping and expansive, he collected them into a lexicon. The
dramatization of that? Absolutely hilarious. Even in translation – seriously,
you don’t need any Yiddish to get the humor. Shmulenson on one side as the evil
stepmother, Rickman on the other, translating, and a hapless reader in the
center, going through the book. It sounds like nothing much. It’s delightful.
You can say the same about
the whole show. Tevye Served Raw, Garnished with
Jews: some short stories, a song, so nu?
Sounds like nothing much. It’s delightful.
Raw, Garnished with Jews
At The Playroom Theater
151 W. 46th St, 8th
Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday,
7:00 pm, July 5-August 14