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Tevye Served Raw, Garnished with Jews

Allen Lewis Rickman

Tevye Served Raw, Garnished with Jews

                         From the writings of Sholem Aleichem

                                                                 by Julia Polinsky

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.

Shane 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.

Shane 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.


Tevye Served Raw, Garnished with Jews
At The Playroom Theater

151 W. 46th St, 8th floor

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, 7:00 pm, January 28 - February 13
& Wednesday, 3:00 pm, February 13

Tickets $38