In 1973, Yentl, based on a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, opened Off-Broadway. Written by Singer and Leah Napolin, the play was a critical and commercial success: A pro-feminist piece steeped in gender confusion as well as an attack on religious bigotry, it proved to be a magnet for controversy. No wonder, then, that it vaulted to Broadway, where it ran for 10 months. Revived almost 30 years after its theatrical unveiling, it's fascinating to see how downright quaint and obvious its themes are now. A conservative (might we say Orthodox?) Yiddish mentality that would have scorned the play years ago now might well embrace it.
Considering the modest means of the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre, the production is imprssively mounted. Robert Kalfin, who directed the original production, has returned to do a magnificent job of blending one scene into the next. He manages to keep a very long and sometimes talky play moving along. This is particularly important in that a sizeable portion of the audience is listening to the dialogue in simultaneous translation: While the actors on stage are giving full-bodied (and full-voiced) performances, many of us are hearing a flat, dull reading of the lines by a single voice through our headsets. In other words, the play needs as much extra energy as the director can muster.
English-speaking audience members would be well advised to listen through the translation with one ear and leave the other ear free to hear the rich and expressive Yiddish spoken by the actors. There are only three Yiddish theaters left in the world -- the Folksbiene here in New York, plus one in Montreal and another in Israel. New York, of course, once had a thriving Yiddish theater out of which the likes of Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni made the leap to mainstream stardom. Here, the leap is in the other direction: A story that attained mass popularity is being presented in a very basic, unadorned way.
The gifted Eleanor Reissa plays Yentl, the rabbi's daughter who yearns to study the Torah. After her father's death, Yentl runs away from her village dressed as a boy so that she might pass as a student. She meets Avigdor (Tzahi Moskovitz in an impressive performance), who befriends her and whom she comes to love almost as much as she loves the Torah. Avigdor already loves the beautiful Hadass (Vera Felice), but Hadass soon falls in love with the shy and sensitive Yentl -- who, of course, is masquerading under another name.
It seems only natural that, as it happens, all the local girls fall in love with the only fellow around who isn't a brute or lug. When told that "he" could have any girl in town, Yentl impetuously asks Hadass to marry "him" -- and, indeed, they do wed. In a clever bit of flimflam, Yentl continues to get away with the deception because Hadass is as unworldly she is; Yentl can tell "his" bride anything about sex, and she will believe it.
Eventually, though, the strain of lying to Hadass and Avigdor takes its toll. Unlike M. Butterfly, which Yentl long preceded, what ultimately happens to our protagonist is a function of his/her own choice. A simple story in some ways, but morally quite complex, Yentl makes for compelling theater.