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The Adventures of Hershele Ostropolyer

Mike Burstyn gives a masterful performance in this must-see Yiddish musical.

Edward Furs and Mike Burstyn in
The Adventures of Hershele Ostropolyer
(© 2010 Michael Priest Photography)
More often than not, a substantial part of the charm of any Folksbeine-National Yiddish Theatre production is the joy (and the humor) that comes out of hearing this richly expressive language put to use on a stage. But the company's current production of the one-act musical The Adventures of Hershele Ostropolyer, now at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, doesn't rely nearly so much on the playfulness of the Yiddish language as it does on the imaginative theatricality of its staging, its enchanting score, and the fine performances given by one and all. It is, first and foremost, a wonderfully produced piece of folkloric theater that would be delightful in any language.

The original tale has gone through myriad changes as generation after generation adapted it to its own needs; at one point it was a three-act play. Carefully cut here, like extra lean pastrami, it is now a delicious piece of comfort food that is as tasty as it is artful, especially as adapted, directed and choreographed by Eleanor Reissa.

In the story, nervy, resourceful vagabond Hershele (played by the always masterful Mike Burstyn) takes it upon himself to help a poor, young couple get married in grand style by hoodwinking a rich miser into paying for their wedding. The moral tone is established by the fact that the rich miser has not only previously cheated the young couple, he has beaten poor Hershele. Revenge could not be sweeter, or more playfully rendered.

The plot is not realistic; for instance, the money-lender, Kalmen (I.W. "Itsy" Firestone) would never be so gullible, nor would his maid, Dvoshe (the deftly comic Daniella Rabbani), be quite so easily duped, But the actors in the piece -- including the golden-voiced Dani Marcus and the always ineffably perfect character actor, Steve Sterne -- are purposefully playing archetypes that are, in simple terms, a Yiddish version of Commedia dell'arte.

The power of the piece -- and it does have power -- comes from its beautiful combination of emotionally potent klezmer music that is both played and sung to perfection, and in its fundamental belief in the common man. Indeed, there are times that you may find yourself unexpectedly moved by the simple yet beautiful sincerity of this must-see piece of theater.


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