The staid, musty air of a shtetl yeshiva first greets theatergoers on entering the Goldman Theater at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center. The handsome stage (designed by Robby Hayes) is crammed with shelves of books and book-ended by oversized tomes that frame the action, as if a story has come to life from the page. Black-clad yeshiva buchers – boys – sit swaying, tugging their beards and arguing Talmudic pilpul – obscure points.
That Old World atmosphere, though, is very shortly turned upside down and the shtetl dwellers of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s memory are given a brisk wake-up call. Yentl, Theater J’s season opener, is not what you expect. Based on a 52-year-old short story that appeared in Commentary, this loving and lively revival with a spritely band of klezmorim, or roving musicians, is absolutely nothing like the Yentl most American audiences know from the 1983 movie showcasing Barbra Streisand, who emoted “Papa can you hear me?” in song.
Theater J associate artistic director Shirley Serotsky has gone back to the story’s source: Bashevis Singer’s short tale, “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy,” which in 1975 a then-young playwright named Leah Napolin shaped into the relatively well-received Broadway production, with the original author’s blessing and his input, particularly to portraying European Jewish shtetl life as authentically as possible. This 2014 Yentl is not your grandfather’s version. It has spice, a bit of sass and, even amid its Old World setting, feels like a breath of fresh air. Under Serotsky’s careful hand, too, this one also nails the traditional Jewish elements, as, of course, should be expected from a Jewish theater. But plenty of plays featuring Jewish characters have someone wearing an inauthentic-looking prayer shawl. As the Talmud attests, the smallest details matter. Those that Serotsky attended to include accurate recitations of Hebrew prayers with an Ashkenazi accent; a mikvah, or ritual bath, scene for a nervous bride-to-be revealing the bride’s bare backside, as she steps down into a pool of water; and a brief betrothal ceremony, where a plate is called for to be broken, an Orthodox custom not often seen outside that insular community. This Yentl, though, might not carry a G rating with the rear-end nudity – both male and female — along with a second act song titled “Oh Sh-t,” sung with aplomb by the main character.
The tale of a teenage girl, recently orphaned, who risks everything to immerse herself in the study of the holy books – Torah, Talmud, even kabbalistic treatises – is not one of transgressive gender bending, but of passion and quiet rebellion. Yentl has a burning desire to delve deeply into the intellectual ideas only permitted to men. To pursue what she believes is her destiny – to learn – she dons men’s clothing and reinvents herself as Anshel. We first meet Yentl in the guise of her boyish doppelganger – played with determination and a requisite amount of unease about her double life and deception by Shayna Blass – as she introduces us to her topsy-turvy world. She’s a fish out of water, a girl suddenly ensconced in the all-male world of the yeshiva, where small groups and pairs of young men study from sun up to sunset.
Though this is the world Yentl yearned for, she soon realizes that more is expected: every yeshiva boy is ultimately to take a bride. When she encounters Avigdor, an attractive and kind-hearted fellow yeshiva student, the two form a fast friendship based on similar intellectual strengths the two share. It’s easy to see what draws Anshel to Avigdor, for Michael Kevin Darnall exhibits both a sense of confidence and vulnerability in the role, though on occasion he’s the least “believably Jewish” member of the cast. But Avigdor is drawn to Hadass, the lovely Sara Dabney Tisdale, a blonde beauty from a wealthy family. Like a Shakespearean cross-dressing play, here, too, signals and lines are crossed and soon Yentl finds herself married. Not quite comedy, but far from tragedy, the plot unwinds with twists and uncertainties that keep one rooting for Yentl.
While Bashevis Singer’s original story contained no inkling of feminist ideals – it was instead a farce about an oddball, a girl who, heaven forbid, wanted to learn like a boy – Napolin has infused her revised script with a strong feminist streak. Thus, what were once tried and true aphorisms about a woman’s role in a man’s world, today those same sentences sound ridiculous, outrageous even. But it becomes clear why Yentl wants a life of book-learning. In Serotsky’s production, the men, at least the yeshiva buchers, sit and study from morning to night. It’s the women who take on laborious tasks: cooking, laundering, cleaning, shopkeeping. Yet Yentl/Anshel didn’t simply wish to study to evade the curse of housework; she was no slacker. Yentl wanted a life of the mind, a life of learning, debating, and sharing ideas, something forbidden to women then.
Singer/songwriter Jill Sobule (the one with the MTV hit “I Kissed a Girl”) has infused the play with a new musical score inflected with strains of pop, soft rock, folk and klezmer. In Yentl none of the characters sing to forward the action or illustrate relationships as a traditional musical is typically structured. Instead, a talented band of singers and instrumentalists sing as a way of annotating work and illuminating ideas, almost like a sidebar commentary in the Talmud.
That means no “I wish” songs, akin to, say Fiddler on the Roof’s “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” or “If I Were a Rich Man.” Rather, songs like “I Hate Girl Things” add a nice wry flavor and contemporary context to this work. Other songs, like “Jonathan and David,” which alludes to the great and controversial relationship of the pair of biblical friends, too, suggest a means to ponder ideas of cross-dressing, gender switching and simple passionate rebellion within a more contemporary context, even amid the bearded, peyos-tugging yeshiva students who populate the play.
Choreographer Laura Schandelmeier has given heady and muscular movement to the 14-member cast, overturning the idea that yeshiva study is solely a pursuit of the mind. Along with Serotsky’s highly attuned direction, the play sheds its bookish demeanor for something more elemental, more attuned to the embodied world that women inhabit, even among the scholarly characters. Hayes’ two-story set is well used by the band of actor/singer/musicians, who include an accordionist, a violinist, a trio of guitar players, a clarinetist, a bass player. Jonathan Tuzman’s orchestrations lend Sobule’s music a rich depth of scope with layers of voices and instruments.
Yentl, this production makes clear, was not a man stuck in the wrong body. She’s not a woman who wishes to become a man, even though some marketing and advance press has suggested a transgender element is integral to the work. Ultimately, Yentl is a fully realized woman. She just happens to desire the same opportunities as men. That she takes action to fulfill what to her is her promise, makes her a rebel, and, yes, a feminist. Yentl, with new music and lyrics by Sobule, sings a proud anthem with a feminist spirit, one all women can embrace.
Yentl, is onstage through Oct. 5 at the DCJCC in the District. Tickets, starting at $35, are available from 800-494-8497 or www.theaterj.org.