The latest offering from the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre is, quite literally, a drag.
“The Megile of Shloyme Klugerman,” the company’s Purim shpiel , goes on the road later this month. A family-oriented production with a twist, the newly revised musical — based on the ancient story of Queen Esther — features an all-male cast.
Although modern and secular audiences might find it purely campy when the fabled beauty Esther appears on stage with a 5 o’clock shadow and a husky voice, the decision to use an all-male cast wasn’t made strictly for its comic possibilities: The production, which was originally commissioned last year by Staten Island’s Orthodox New Springville Jewish Center, is adhering to kol isha — the set of Jewish laws that forbid men from hearing women singing. Nevertheless, it’s quite an unorthodox play from any perspective, and most unusual for Folksbiene, a historically secular company whose productions, including the current show, “On Second Avenue,” and last year’s “A Novel Romance,” have always featured mixed casts.
“We were commissioned by an Orthodox synagogue and we’re accommodating their kol isha request, but we’ve created something that’s enjoyable to a broad audience; we’re not treating it with that much austerity,” playwright Motl Didner said. “All our other shows have male and female casts. Kol isha does not usually play into what Folksbiene does.”
The fact that kol isha was a factor in the shpiel does not mean that Folksbiene has made a dramatic shift in its philosophy in order to court the Yiddish-speaking Orthodox community.
“It’s kind of a goof,” Didner clarified. “There’s always some comic aspect to having men dress in drag, and I insist that the actors who play the female characters not shave a week before the production…. It’s traditional to do it with an all-male cast, but we tried to lend a modern sensibility to the roots of the Yiddish theater.”
With a script by Didner and song lyrics by Mike Fox, the show is filled with current cultural references and parodies of contemporary songs. Complete with groggers, costume pageants and live music performed by Deborah Strauss and Jeff Warschauer of the Strauss/Warschauer Klezmer duo and by Annette Ezekiel and Alicia Jo Rabins of the klezmer/rock band GOLEM, “The Megile of Shloyme Klugerman” is a play within a play, told from the perspective of the palace tailor who acts as the show’s emcee. Unlike most Folksbiene productions, which are performed in Yiddish with English supertitles projected above the stage, this Purim shpiel is mostly in English, with Yiddish words and expressions mixed into the dialogue.
The production — which will travel to various venues in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island — is part of Folksbiene’s new traveling outreach program, designed to bring Yiddish theater to audiences who are either unable to come into Manhattan to see productions or unaware that Yiddish theater exists. Folksbiene, founded in New York in 1915 by Yiddish actors who intended to provide a serious theatrical alternative to the lighter, popular shows on Second Avenue, has historically produced one main-stage production and several smaller programs a year. But through initiatives overseen by Didner, who was hired in 2003 to fill the position of outreach director, the company has expanded its yearly repertoire to include two main-stage productions, a traveling show and some 20 additional special events.
“Our new outreach program is still under construction, and the Purim shpiel was our first foray into that,” Didner said. “The problem is that a large number of Yiddish speakers… don’t know that there is a thriving Yiddish theater and a Yiddish world. They don’t know it is accessible, even if they don’t speak Yiddish — they don’t know about the supertitles.”
“We’ve really expanded big-time this year,” he added. “Hopefully audiences will develop a taste for the Yiddish theater and start studying Yiddish in their communities.”