A Bissel Controversy


Vera Felice won’t do nudity. She won’t work on Shabbat. But the 21-year-old actress and model can do accents. A native of Copenhagen, the shapely blonde has no trouble slipping from thick-tongued Russian to saccharine Southern. For her next role, however, the recent graduate of the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute says she won’t have to learn a new accent, "just a new language."

Felice is set to co-star in the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre’s upcoming production of "Yentl." The play is based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s 1975 stage adaptation of his story "Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy." Like Felice, "Yentl" the play will be making its Yiddish-language debut when it opens this fall.

The all-Yiddish production of "Yentl" (rather than a classic from the Yiddish canon) is the latest attempt by the Folksbiene’s directors to breathe new life into the 87-year-old theater company and to draw in a new generation of theatergoers. They’re betting their "Yentl" will appeal to mainstream audiences: including fans of Barbra Streisand, who turned the story into a hit film. But news of the Folksbiene’s production has so far failed to satisfy the Folksbiene’s critics, who say the company has lost its traditional Yiddish flavor by straying from the Yiddish core.

It’s like kosher food, says David Romeo. "We want the real thing, not ‘Jewish-style’ cooking." Romeo is the general manager of the new and struggling Yiddish Public Theatre, the Folksbiene’s only competition. Last winter, its first production opened to critical praise with Peretz Hirshbein’s "Grine Felder" ("Green Fields"), an undeniable classic.

The Folksbiene’s current leadership clearly wants to spice up its repertoire with more contemporary shows that will have broad appeal to English-speaking audiences.

"We’re not against the old plays or for the new plays. We’re trying to do theater that moves people and that’s relevant to the community," says actress/writer/director Eleanor Reissa, who together with Zalman Mlotek, took control of the Folksbiene in 1998.

They started their tenure with a staging of Reissa’s autobiographical work "Zise Khaloymes" ("Sweet Dreams") in 1999 and the promotion of "Kids and Yiddish," an English-Yiddish variety show for families. Last season the Folksbiene put on another bilingual production, "Songs of Paradise," but also staged readings of works from the Yiddish canon, such as the "Yiddish King Lear" (1892) by Jacob Gordin and Hirshbein’s "Raisins and Almonds" (1915).

Yiddish traditionalists object to the new-fangled program. "They push [Yiddish stage actresses] Mina Bern and Shifra Lerer aside and put Yinglish on stage," says Max Eisen, a theater promoter who worked for the Folksbiene for 20 years.

An ally of the Folksbiene’s longtime artistic director Zypora Spaisman, who died in May, Eisen is one of the most vocal critics of the theater’s new artistic vision. Other veterans of the Yiddish theater say they appreciate the need for change, but prefer the classics. And some recommend extending the Folksbiene’s repertoire to include Yiddish translations of world classics.

The oldest continuously performing Yiddish theater, the Folksbiene began in 1915 with a translation of Henrik Ibsen’s "Enemy of the People." The group of socially conscious amateur actors who launched the Folksbiene aimed to raise the level of Yiddish theater being offered at the time. Today, even those who support revamping the Folksbiene warn against what they see as a tendency toward "Second Avenue shtick," a derogatory reference to Yiddish theater in its heyday.

Reissa says she and Mlotek are guided by a simple philosophy: "to do good theater." But according to the Folksbiene’s president, Robert Kaplan, they have a higher mandate. They were brought in, Kaplan says, "not just to save [the Folksbiene], but to make it work in today’s world."

Cultivating hearty attendance for Yiddish theater has been a struggle for the Folksbiene for decades, as audiences have dwindled along with the number of native Yiddish speakers. Since the 1970s, the Folksbiene was kept alive almost single-handedly by two of its veteran performers, Spaisman and Morris Adler (who died in 2001). By 1998, the Workmen’s Circle, which supports the Folksbiene, had begun to look for new leadership for the financially ailing theater. Reissa and Mlotek, a conductor whose father was a longtime director of the Workmen’s Circle school system, stepped in. They hoped to capitalize on the emerging interest in Yiddish studies and Klezmer music.

Removed from her position at the Folksbiene’s creative helm, Spaisman left (taking her mailing list with her) to start the Yiddish Public Theatre. Despite its critical success, "Grine Felder" drew sparse crowds, a fact its creators attribute to its Lower East Side stage and lack of advance notice. When Spaisman died, the theater was left in limbo and the Folksbiene remained the predominant venue.

"Yiddish theater always did whatever it had to draw audiences," says Nahma Sandrow, author of "Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater" (Syracuse University Press, 1995). "So the Folksbiene’s got to do that, too, and it’s got to be all things to all people.

"They’re only one theater, and they can do only so many things in one season," Sandrow says. Admitting a fondness for the classics, she adds, "Those lovely old [plays] do have a quality the new things don’t have: a traditional quality.

"But their mandate is to keep the Yiddish theater running," she says of Reissa and Mlotek. "That’s showbiz, right?"

Eisen faults the Folksbiene’s board of directors for a lack of Yiddish theater experience. As a result, he says, the new artistic directors have creative "carte blanche."

Kaplan contends that the board is not meant to have artistic oversight. "The board’s primary role is to make sure that the theater is sound," he says, "and fund-raising is a big piece of it."

To that end, the Folksbiene recently hired a marketing director and developed a promotional campaign that targets audiences more attuned to sound bites than soliloquies.

In the past five years, the Folksbiene has increased its income from private donations and, according to 2001 tax returns, more than doubled its ticket sales. The theater received a $200,000 grant from New York State in May to establish a permanent home at 344 West 36th St., where "Yentl" will premiere in October.

"Yentl" will certainly be familiar to new audiences. In 1983, Streisand’s movie-musical version created a "Fiddler on the Roof" for a younger generation. Almost a decade earlier, the play by Singer and Leah Napolin had opened on Broadway, starring Tovah Feldshuh as the rabbis’ daughter whose passion for learning drives her to defy convention and impersonate a boy in order to study Torah.

With the new Yiddish translation by writer and journalist Jacob Weitzner, the Folksbiene’s "Yentl" returns to its theatrical, non-musical roots. ("One thing is for sure," Singer wrote of the 1983 film, "there was too much singing in this movie. Much too much.")

Robert Kalfin, who conceived and directed the Broadway original, will also direct the Yiddish version. Elaine Grollman, a Yiddish-speaking actress who played in the English production of "Yentl," has been cast, as has Yiddish theater star Mina Berg. Reissa will make her Folksbiene acting debut in the title role.

A casting call earlier this summer brought a host of newcomers to the Folksbiene, most attracted by the promise of a paying role on a New York stage. Many of them, like Vera Felice, had never before uttered a full sentence in Yiddish. There was Josh Berg, 31, who visited Yiddish thespians Seymour Rexite and studied the first three chapters of a Yiddish textbook as part of his preparation. And there was Kevin Varner, 31, a native of North Carolina, who had memorized Klezmer songs written by a Jewish friend, but was new to the gutteral "r" and the clustered consonants that Yiddish demands.

Felice says she "went in knowing only [the song] ‘Yiddische Mama.’ " But a week holed up in her Upper West Side apartment practicing phrases like "de heys ha-yam" yielded success. After Reissa, Felice was the first actress cast in a role. She will play the love interest, Hadas.

"We always said, ‘Where are you going to find [new] actors?’ There aren’t any more," Reissa says. "But there are!"