Three actors—Yelena Shmulenson, Allen Lewis Rickman (Velvel in the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man”) and Shane Baker (“the best-loved Episcopalian on the Yiddish stage today”)—manage the feat of bringing five of Aleichem’s stories—adapted and translated by Baker and Rickman—to life under Rickman’s incisive and warm direction. Sourcing the original, nitty-gritty shtetl-soaked tales, makes Tevye Served Raw, if possible, more passionate and involving than the musical.
Raw goes right to the heart and guts of the source material, serving up the meek, but personable, Tevye the Dairyman (Rickman), beseeching Aleichem (Baker) to help him out. Ostensibly, the Dairyman wants the attention that the master Yiddish writer could provide, but, as their correspondence continues it is clear that Tevye has much more on his mind. Their “correspondence”—catching the nuance of the poor Jew’s jargon—incisively reveals the plight of the small-town (shtetl) Jews, a thumbnail sketch of the history of Eastern European anti-Semitism that would eventually lead to the Holocaust. This is foreshadowed in Tevye’s eventual failing health and exile from his place of birth.
Tevye relates the devastating loss of his daughter Khave who runs off with a Russian villager after—horror of horrors!—converting to Russian Orthodoxy, a tale beautifully told both here and in Fiddler. Somehow, in the tiny Playroom Theater, the problem is earth-shattering.
Overhearing Tevye and Golde (Shmulenson) working out the perfect way to convince the Russian priest to “return” Khave, is to understand the plight of Judaism in a world of powerful Christianity. Underneath it all, they both know any approach to a powerful churchman would be futile and the scene between Golde, Tevye and Father Aleksii plays out in variations of sadness, despair and anger.
All is not doom and gloom, however. Two scenes, both humorously observed, leaven the proceedings. The first, “Strange Jews on a Train,” is a rapid-fire small talk, monotone conversation between two passengers on a train going to Kolomey. One is a Russian Jew and the other a Galitsyaner (from Western Ukraine), united tenuously by Yiddish, but divided by custom and sophistication. The interplay is little more than “our shops are better than your shops” and “our rich people are richer and meaner than your rich people,” but pride and a false sense of dignity cleverly keep the different sects separate.
In the second bit, a volunteer from the audience is asked to read off the letters of the Jewish alphabet—aleph, beyz, giml, etc.—as the cast members toss off humorous examples of words using those letter. For instance: Aleph: “jackass, idiot, ragged idiot,” etc., totally overwhelming the poor audience member with a barrage of words. How much of it is scripted is hard to determine, but it is good fun.
Tevye Served Raw balances all the elements of Aleichem’s world and serves up a rich mixture of raw emotion and the sense of humor that has allowed Jews to survive “the slings and arrows” of a gentile world.
The three actors are brilliant, particularly Shmuleson who somehow manages to change appearance from scene to scene. George Spelvin’s costumes (a name that is a theatrical joke for the “in crowd”), Alex Ryaboy’s original music, Joan Racho-Jansen’s and projections by Kenny Funk keep this chamber piece moving along.
Tevye Served Raw (Garnished with Jews) (reopens Wednesdays: September 5 – October 3, 2018)
The Playroom Theater, 151 West 46th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-838-3006 or visit http://www.BrownPaperTickets.com
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission