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‘Yentl’ explores gender and tradition at Cleveland Play House

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Yentl at the Cleveland Play House

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There are topics that seem timeless regardless of decade, as is evident in the Cleveland Play House’s production of “Yentl”. Running now through February 2, 2014 at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare, the Michael Perlman directed piece explores the meaning of tradition, religion, gender, identity, love and duty.

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Yentl” is based on the short story “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy” by Isaac Bashevis Singer and has been adapted for the stage by Leah Napolin and Singer. It is the tale of a young Jewish woman who rebels against the limitations put on women in an early twentieth century Polish village.

The title character, Yentl, the daughter of a rabbi, finds her joy in the study of Torah and other holy texts. For women, this study is strictly forbidden by Jewish law. Yentl is dismayed that her future has been pre-determined as a wife and mother, destined for nothing bigger than boiling water and paying bills. The death of her father is the catalyst she needs to begin a new journey into uncharted waters – life as a “man” in a yeshiva, or all-male school for studying Jewish law. She takes the name Anshel, begins her studies alongside her study partner Avigdor, and wades into the waters of what it is to be a “scholar”, “man”, “woman”, “friend”, and true in faith.

The production is thought-provoking and conversation starting. Because of the use of the traditional vehicle of Judaism, audience members are encouraged to read the program notes, “The Yeshiva from Yentl’s Time to Today.” It is an educational overview of the world about to be revealed on the stage, and helpful to those who may not have a familiarity with Jewish tradition and terminology.

The dramatic tone on the production is handled with respect, and the meaty relationships between the characters of Yentl (played by Rebecca Gibel), Avigdor (played by Ben Mehl) and Hadass (played by Therese Anderberg) are well-established and solid. They clearly all have mutual love and respect for one another, and their heartbreak that comes through the cloud of Yentl’s concealed identity is palpable. What is true love? What is the meaning of love between man and woman? Between men? Between women? What does one's society say about these loves? What is a woman's place in the world? All of this plays out in the context of what it is to be a sincere and faithful Jew in the eyes of society.

Another performance of note is that of Dorothy Silver, who is the wise and compassionate Yachna. Her presence is focused and motherly.

There is a bit of confusion, though, about the continuity of tone in the show. Although moments of levity are needed and appreciated, the levels to which the comedic moments are taken border on campy when contrasted to the serious subject matter. For example, near the end of the show when Avigdor returns to tell Hadass that Anshel will not be returning, the door is shut and the chorus bursts into an enthusiastic segue that’s a bit inappropriate in contrast to the weight of what has just happened in the story.

There is also director Michael Perlman’s use of the ensemble, which is sometimes more like as window dressing than purposeful. The large company of 17 is necessary to set the scene of a Polish village, but sometimes the presence of so many or even just of a random few seems extraneous. As is the use of music – it’s almost as if there should be more music throughout or none at all.

The production looks appropriate. Scenic Designer Robin Vest’s use of a multi-level wood surround space allows for an old-world feel against the prominent, spinning stained glass Star of David that adorns a large area of the floor. Costume Designer Jenny Mannis continues the traditional feel with her costuming, although comments were heard in the audience that Yentl’s hair prevents any full investment in the illusion that she passes as a man. Other design elements worked well with nods to Burke Brown (Lighting Designer), Elisheba Ittoop (Composer/Sound Designer).

Overall the production is solid, with enough honest moments and true connections to make the traditional “Yentl” a topic of conversation within the relevant social dialogues of the day. Note: “Yentl” contains mature themes and nudity.

“Yentl” runs now through February 2, 2014 in the Allen Theatre at PlayhouseSquare. For more information and tickets, please call 216-241-6000 or visit www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

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Do you have a Cleveland performing arts story? Contact Kate Miller at KateMillerExaminer@yahoo.com.

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