On a frigid January evening in New York City, Rebecca Joy Fletcher and Stephen Mo Hanan performed their two-person act, “Kleynkunst!: Warsaw’s Brave and Brilliant Yiddish Cabaret,” before a full house at Helen’s Restaurant, Cabaret & Piano Lounge in Chelsea, as part of a five-day-long European cabaret festival called Kabarett Fête.
The title of Fletcher’s act is an allusion to the kleynkunst theaters: Yiddish-language cabarets of the interwar period, popular in European cities that had major Jewish populations. One of the leading urban centers for this particular cabaret scene was Warsaw. These uniquely Jewish cabarets were considered virtual dens of iniquity by the more religious elements of the community; indeed, they were often frequented by Jews who had parted ways with their traditional and Yiddish-speaking upbringings. Kleynkunst theaters were also havens for Jewish underworld figures — smugglers, bandits and prostitutes — the likes of which appear in the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer, one of Warsaw’s own.
Fletcher, who is also a cantor and educator, received a standing ovation for her well-researched performance, which featured the archival songs and comedic material of past kleynkunst theaters in a new light, taking the audience on a journey into the beauty and rawness of the era stretching from the 1920s through the ’40s. By the end of the first song, “Mackie Messer” — otherwise known as “Mack the Knife” — Fletcher had already succeeded in mesmerizing the audience with her stirring voice and comic timing. Moreover, those audience members who could understand the Yiddish repertoire were in for a real treat, as Fletcher’s Yiddish flowed smoothly and naturally. She even managed to learn Yiddish in the Polish — or, more specifically, Warsaw — dialect, to bring a certain air of authenticity to her performance.
Although at its core, “Kleynkunst!” wove together a series of mostly satiric and humorous sketches set to Yiddish song lyrics, the hour-long performance was also interspersed seamlessly with English dialogue, jokes and songs. In this way, even audience members who did not understand Yiddish were likewise drawn into the overall message of the performance. “My goal is to bring enough empowerment to the audience, such that they can enter this magical world, even if they don’t understand every word,” Fletcher said.
Fletcher believes fervently in the broad appeal of “Kleynkunst!” — which she wrote and theater veteran Michael Montel directed. As such, she ultimately hopes to present this performance to audiences of Jews and gentiles alike, both locally and internationally. For now, she will reprise the show this month in New York.
“Kleynkunst!” will be performed in New York City on March 11 at Makor (212-601-1000), and March 20, April 12 and April 19 at Helen’s (212-206-0609). For information about other performances, visit www.rebeccajoyfletcher.com.