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Folksbiene’s ‘Romance’ Sings in the New Year

Every Jewish girl has a list of criteria that her ideal man must meet. But Khane, the bookish heroine of Abraham Goldfaden’s “A Novel Romance,” which is playing — in Yiddish — at the Manhattan JCC until January 2, 2005, has a list longer than most.

He must be romantic, of course. And passionate, too. But then she gets particular: He also must sport a black mustache, speak perfect German and — most specifically of all — be named Franz.

In short, Khane’s fantasy mate must be a character straight out of the German pulp romances that she equates with culture and refinement.

Part “Madame Bovary,” part “The Taming of the Shrew” and part toe-tapping good time, Goldfaden’s 1877 musical comedy (originally titled “Die Kaprizne Kalemoyd” or “The Capricious Bride”) is the latest offering from the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre, which, now in its 90th season, has the distinction of being the oldest continuously operating Yiddish theater company in the world.

The play opens with Yitskhok, Khane’s long-suffering father. (“How do fathers who have several grown daughters manage?” he asks the audience. “I have just one and she’s turned me old and gray.”) Nearing his wit’s end — Khane is not only unmarried, but also more than 30 — he turns to Shloyme, the quintessential nice guy, for assistance.

Emboldened with false confidence (“This Khane situation is a walk in the park,” he sings), Shloyme makes his pitch. But when he tells Khane to drop her literary pretensions and get married already, she doesn’t care much for the advice and sends him packing.

But no sooner is Shloyme gone than Kabtsnzon enters the picture. A drunk and a bum, he is also a schemer. He knows a mark when he sees one, and he sees one in Khane. He manages to convince her that he’s the man of her dreams and then proceeds to bilk her father out of his fortune.

Starring four Folksbiene veterans (Ibi Kaufman, David Mandelbaum, Steve Sterner and Sam Guncler), the play marks Mitchell Greenberg’s first turn on the Yiddish stage. A testament to Greenberg’s adaptive power, said director Allen Lewis Rickman, is the fact that many audience members, Hasidim among them, when asked who the newcomer is, routinely answer wrongly. Two members of the New York-based band Golem provide musical accompaniment.

While the bare outlines are the same, “A Novel Romance” is actually a significantly revised version of the original. According to Rickman, who both directed and adapted the play, between a quarter and a third of the material is new. But even so, Rickman took pains to be faithful. Although he wrote the lyrics to a number of new songs, the music is Goldfaden’s.

Then again, said Rickman, the whole question of faithfulness is a tricky one in Yiddish theater, because Yiddish publishing has no Samuel French, no publisher of the so-called “acting editions” of plays, which record the stage managers’ revisions and sharpenings. When staging a Yiddish play, one must work from a script untested by the rehearsal and performance process.

Of the 400 or so plays written by Goldfaden (1840-1908), “Die Kaprizne Kalemoyd” is not among the best known. Its one and only previous New York production was in 1882. Composed just as Goldfaden was beginning his career, the play is smaller in scale than the grand nationalistic operettas (such as “Bar Kokhba” and “Shulamith”) on which his reputation rests. But the theme of national pride that later became his trademark is already in clear evidence. Although Kabtsnzon is the play’s nominal villain, Khane’s assimilationist Germanophilia is its real one.

Indeed, some of the play’s most wickedly funny moments come as Khane regales us with her “German,” which is actually the gussied up German-Yiddish hybrid known as Daytschmerisch. In a wonderful touch, the play’s English supertitles are peppered with Gothic characters (as in the font used in The New York Times logo) whenever pseudo-German is being used.

While the play does push a conservative anti-assimilationist agenda, its preaching is gentle. The moral is nothing so stark as “Honor your father” as it is “Honor your Yiddish.”

And with a play as entertaining as this, such an injunction is easy to heed.

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