Yiddish Theater, On The Margin


Little did the theater director David Herskovitz know, when he caught The Jewish Museum’s 2008 exhibit on Marc Chagall and the Russian Jewish Theater, that he would end up spending the next stage of his career staging forgotten Yiddish works. Herskovitz’s theater company, Target Margin, is discovering that rescuing Yiddish plays from oblivion can transform audiences’ expectations.

The first stage of Target Margin’s new two-year project, called “Beyond the Pale,” wraps up this weekend at the Brick Theater in Brooklyn with a double bill of Samuel Daixel’s “After Midnight” and David Pinski’s “Cripples,” along with late-night performances of Avraham Goldfaden’s operetta, “Shulamis, or The Well and the Pussycat” ($15, www.targetmargin.org)

These productions follow on the heels of experimental stagings of Jacob Gordin’s “God, Man and Devil,” and Alter Kacyzne’s “Dukus,” about a Catholic Duke’s conversion to Judaism and subsequent martyrdom. The project will continue next spring with Peretz Hirschbein’s sexy, supernatural drama, “The Haunted Inn,” and then start up again next fall with another set of plays.

In finding forgotten plays and having them adapted, Herskovitz has leaned on the talents of well-known Yiddish theater scholars like Nahma Sandrow, Jeremy Dauber and Joel Berkowitz. He has involved more than 80 theater artists from diverse backgrounds in the festival, and has given them great latitude in reinterpreting the plays for a contemporary audience. Last week’s production of “Dukus,” for example, incorporated a Christmas tree, carols and selections from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” ballet.

Herskovitz, whose father was a Holocaust survivor, told The Jewish Week that he was astounded by the range and depth of the Yiddish plays that are reposing in archives. “There’s a whole library of Yiddish plays from different periods and in different styles,” he said. “We want to re-deliver this culture to Jews who don’t know about it, but also to make theaters all over become aware of these works as serious possibilities for production today.”

Yiddish drama is trendy nowadays in New York, with local companies either translating Yiddish plays into English or presenting classic English-language plays in Yiddish translation; Ellen Perecman’s New Worlds Theatre Project recently produced “Welcome to America” (based on H. Leivick’s “Schmates”) and David Mandelbaum’s New Yiddish Rep is planning a Yiddish translation of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” Even the venerable Folksbiene is increasingly presenting works in English, like this season’s revival of “The Golden Land.” But few companies are taking as radical an approach as Target Margin.

“We’re experimental, bold, unafraid to take risks,” said Herskovitz. “These plays are not China dolls or museum artifacts that have to be handled with kid gloves. We want to get down and dirty. We want to stage muscular productions that are very contemporary. We want the culture at large to get it.”