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Cleveland Play House production of ‘Yentl’ is entertaining but slightly flawed

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Yentl

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Although I felt entertained by the Cleveland Play House production of “Yentl” now playing at the Allen Theatre at PlayhouseSquare I found elements of it that bothered me. These concerns are enough to keep me from giving a totally positive endorsement.

My first concern surfaced even before the play began. The entire cast came out on stage and interacted with the audience, joking and laughing to break the ice and break down the fourth wall. During the play it was hard to distinguish what was trying to be portrayed. At times it was a comedy and at others a drama that for me resulted in a bit of a schizophrenic feel (i.e.: dramody). Although the predominately Jewish audience seemed to appreciate the efforts on stage only a few gave a standing ovation at the end although during the show many audience members sang along with the Yiddish songs and recited the prayers along with the actors.

Being a Gentile I have only a passing knowledge of the Jewish religion and therefore not qualified enough to pass judgment on the authenticity of the dialects and religious ordinances portrayed in the show, but I did notice that some of the cast members spoke with American inflection while others had very broad Yiddish accents, since the entire cast supposedly lived in the same village this added to my confusion. The same is true whenever I see a Roman movie where everyone speaks in clipped British accents.

I also find that there is always an inherent problem when I see a play in which a movie has been made (or visa versa). No matter how hard I try to force the film from my mind it still colors my perception of what I perceive on stage. In the 1983 MGM movie that was co-written, co-produced, directed by and starring Barbara Streisand (aka: Yentle, The Barbara Streisand Show) I kept looking for similarities that were not there. There is also the issue of both the movie and play not following the original tone of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s original short story "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy". From what I have been able to garner from my research, the original story was a morality tale and was not designed to be a musical movie or for that matter a play that was light hearted in any way. It was serious subject matter that Singer was far ahead of his time in portraying.

Then there is the issue of nudity. In the early part of the play, Avigdor (Yentl’s study partner) and a group of other male rabbinical students go for a swim on a hot day. At first there are brief glimpses of male rears upstage (the farthest part away from the audience) and the sound of splashing. Then Avigdor strides across the stage in all his naked glory and sits downstage next to Yentl. He eventually puts on a pair of old style briefs reflective of that time period. There is also a scene when Yentl flashes her breasts to Avigdor to convince him that she is indeed a woman. I am not a prude but I always ask myself if the display of flesh is required to carry the story forward. In these cases I found both instances unnecessary and that neither one contributed to the story. I felt it would have been more effective if Avigdor came across the stage in the nearly transparent “undies” that left at least a little to the imagination and Yentle had her back to the audience and when she revealed herself to Avigdor he would deliver a line such as “Wow, you’re a woman and what great breasts!”.

I also felt that visually Rebecca Gibel was not very convincing as a boy. Even with the hair cut off and the male clothing she simply did not “transform” enough to the male gender. She is a lovely young lady but her face and voice betray her.

So, that is what I felt was wrong with the production, was there anything that I felt redeeming? Yes, there is. The cast (in spite of the problems) really is top notch. The acting is convincing and at times quite moving. You feel that the village is trapped by its own conventions and could not change even if given the opportunity. Everyone has their place in the hierarchy and a strict caste system is in place that will not be removed until the tragedy of World War II is forced upon them. The play strongly illustrates this when it is revealed that Avigdor is refused marriage to his beloved when it is found that his brother committed suicide which was thought to be a family trait. The costuming seemed to be quite authentic and the set was fully functional. Lighting helped immensely to carry the various themes of the play.

To my untrained eye and ear there seems to be a high degree of authenticity as far as the teachings, songs, traditions and superstitions of the people. I felt myself wondering what the reaction of the learned members of the Jewish community is concerning this play. It deals with lesbianism and transgender topics that I am sure are found in all societies and religions. Perhaps it is as Yentl’s father says early on, “Sometimes Heaven makes a mistake.”

Prude Alert: Adult themes of transgender and lesbianism as well as male and female frontal nudity could make this an uncomfortable evening for those not use to such displays. There is, however, no profanity of any kind (unless a Yiddish word slipped by me).

Shooting From The Lip (My Last Words): If you are willing to overlook the imperfections of dialect, the dramedy tug of war and the nudity (front row patrons beware), Yentl still makes for a fine evening of entertainment. The strength of the acting helps greatly in overcoming the weaknesses.

The cast of “Yentl” is made up of seventeen local and New York based actors and features guest artist Rebecca Gibel in the starring role. Other guest members of the cast include Bonnie Black, Samuel Cohen, Mitch Greenberg, Suzanne Grodner and Ben Mehl. Local actors appearing in this production will be Bob Abelman, Donald Carrier and Marc Moritz. Rounding out the cast are all seven members of the third-year graduate ensemble of the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House Master of Fine Arts Acting Program. These members include Therese Anderberg, Bernard Bygott, Drew Derek, TJ Gainley, Sarah Kinsey, Christa Meyers, and Stephen Michael Spencer.

Behind-The-Scenes
Building Ensemble January 18, 2014
11:30 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.

Even when a play isn't set in a Polish shtetl it takes a village to bring it to life. Get on your feet with our CWRU/CPH MFA Graduate Acting Ensemble's students and leaders, and Yentl actors, to discover what it means for a "cast" to become an "ensemble," and how an ensemble becomes more than the sum of its parts. RSVP required InsideCPH@clevelandplayhouse.com.

TalkBack: “Yentl”

January 19, 2014
4:30 p.m. - 5:00 p.m.

January 21, 2014
9:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.

January 26, 2014
4:30 p.m. - 5:00 p.m.

Pre-show Conversations - Free for all ticketholders!

These fun and interactive 25-minute conversations happen right before the show in the Allen Theatre Complex. Pull back the curtain early and connect with the play in an engaging and relaxed setting, beginning 45 minutes before every performance of Yentl.

Ticket Information

Yentl will take place through Febevruary 2, 2014 in the Allen Theatre at PlayhouseSquare. Tickets range in price from $45-$72 each. Students under the age of 25 with a valid ID will be offered a special $15 ticket price. Tickets are also just $25 for anyone under age 35, sponsored by Scene Magazine. To order single tickets please call 216-241-6000 or visit www.clevelandplayhouse.com. Groups of 10+ save up to 40% off single ticket prices; call 216-400-7027.

Founded in 1915, Cleveland Play House is America’s first professional regional theatre. Throughout its rich history, Cleveland Play House has remained dedicated to its mission to inspire, stimulate and entertain diverse audiences in Northeast Ohio by producing plays and theatre education programs of the highest professional standards. It has produced more than 100 world and/or American premieres, and over its long history more than 12 million people have attended over 1,300 CPH productions. Cleveland Play House looks toward its centennial while performing in three state-of-the art venues at PlayhouseSquare in downtown Cleveland.

The Ohio Arts Council helped fund Cleveland Play House with state tax dollars to encourage economic growth, educational excellence and cultural enrichment for all Ohioans. We also thank the residents of Cuyahoga County for supporting Cleveland Play House through Cuyahoga Arts & Culture.

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