“The Adventures of Hershele Ostropolyer,” the new production by the New York cast of Folksbiene, the nearly century-old national Yiddish theater, is all about lessons.
For Kalmen, the show’s villain, the lessons are about generosity, compassion, and humility, precisely the opposite traits he displays in a rant early in the play:
Hob ikh a gelibte, zi iz eyner oyf der velt
Hob ikh a gelibte, mit ir gornisht felt
Hob ikh a gelibte, zi shitzt mikh fin di kelt
Hob ikh a gelibte, ir nomen iz gelt
Hob ikh a gelibte, ir nomen iz gelt.
I have a beloved, one of a kind
I have a beloved, with her nothing lacks
I have a beloved, she protects me from the cold
I have a beloved, her name is gold.
For the two Queens actors in the play, the lessons involve knowledge and growth rather than morality.
Edward Furs of Forest Hills, who plays Stanavoy, a Russian policeman, and Nimmy Weisbrod of Astoria, who plays Berel, both have had to learn some Yiddish expressly to play their parts.
Yiddish is a blend of German, Slavic, Aramaic and Hebrew with hints of the Romance languages. Written in the Hebrew alphabet and of Ashkenazi Jewish origin, Yiddish is perhaps the greatest symbol (some would argue relic) of the Jewish diaspora of Eastern Europe.
“For me it was the grown-ups’ language,” said Weisbrod, a 29-year-old Israeli whose grandparents spoke Yiddish. “I understood that my grandparents were from somewhere else and that they spoke another language.”
Adapted by Brooklynite Eleanor Reissa, who also directs the play, “Hershele” tells the story of a young shtetl couple, Berel and Tsipke, who are being prevented from getting married because the couple can’t afford the exorbitant price Kalmen is asking to retrieve a ring Tsipke’s grandmother once pawned to the charlatan.
Though in some respects the play can fairly be described as an ensemble piece, its impetus is clearly the oddly charming life of Hershele Ostropolyer, court jester and crusader.
The legendary Hershele seems to be based on a historic character who lived in what is now Ukraine in the late 18th or early 19th century and served as sometime clown and companion to Rabbi Boruch of Medzhybizh, a Hasidic master.
As colorful as the real Hershele may have been, even his antics could not live up to the mythology that has grown around him in the past two centuries or more — in children’s books, poems, a novel, a television program that aired in the 1950s and at least two plays preceding the current production.
Some people believe that Hershele Ostropolyer was really an angel, heaven sent to fine-tune Creation, help the needy and comfort the downtrodden. But the character’s personal slovenliness, combined with neither a fire and brimstone nor a saintly demeanor, seems to fly in the face of both Judaism and Christianity’s images of an angel.
Others see Hershele as the Robin Hood of the Jewish shtetl.
A pacifist by nature like any good Yeshiva boy, Hershele did not use violence to bring down his victims. Instead, he drew lethally pointed witticisms and putdowns from the quiver of his highly developed and sensitive mind to launch at the haughty and unjust.
Despite his erudition, Hershele would also not flinch from campy behavior if it were needed to pursue the higher cause of spreading happiness, like dressing up in costumes as he does twice in “The Adventures of Hershele Ostropolyer.”
Who can appreciate this simultaneous sacrifice and bolstering of the ego better than an actor?
Edward Furs and Nimmy Weisbrod’s careers suggest that they both relate to Hershel’s desire to make others happy.
Furs, 52, is a classic example of an actor who has displayed imagination and fortitude to maintain his artistic career. He took elective courses in theater while completing a degree in management and marketing at NYU.
After graduating, he worked in children’s theater before connecting with the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, where he not only acted but also built scenery and hung lights.
He trained for three years with a full scholarship at the prestigious University of Alabama – Alabama Shakespeare Festival Professional Actor Training Program and graduated with a master’s of fine arts.
He has performed with European theater groups from Stockholm and Poland and can be seen in several popular U.S. television series ranging from “Ugly Betty” to “The Sopranos.”
A lifelong New Yorker, Furs is an ideal pick to play the character Stanavoy. “I appreciate the irony of the New York guy playing the cop,” he said. “I was brought up in East New York, surrounded by gangs. I feel I’m adaptable.”
Weisbrod, a young Israeli, wanted to perform from the age of 6, when he saw his cousin Yael’s tap dance class. After seeing 10 plays with his father Meir on a trip to London as a teenager, he was hooked on musical theater.
He even served in a performance group during his mandatory three years of service in the Israeli army, noting, “they were a tough audience.”
However, when a teacher in Israel suggested at one point in his studies that he see a performance of “Turandot,” the experience had a profound impression on Weisbrod, He decided to pursue the study of opera and came to the United States to the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, at which he earned both a bachelor of music degree and a performance diploma in opera.
He did a professional apprenticeship at the Orlando Opera Studio and was awarded the New York Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Audition award for the city of Orlando in 2008.
Despite his success in opera, Weisbrod missed musical theatre and moved to New York just over a year ago to pursue a career on stage. Aside from his work in “Hershele,” Weisbrod also landed a part in the cast of the Off-Broadway production “Naked Boys Singing.”
Though most of the members of the cast and theater group are Jewish, some are not, a company official said. Both Weisbrod and Furs say that learning Yiddish — even phonetically — for their current parts was a very challenging but worthwhile experience.
“I find myself going to sleep thinking in Yiddish, taking a shower thinking in Yiddish,” said Furs, a first-generation Polish American. “It’s a very diverse language. Being in this play allows you really feel it. You can almost taste it.”
For Weisbrod, whose grandparents both lived in a shtetl and were Holocaust survivors, the experience is even more personal.
“Had my grandparents been alive, they would have been more than proud and pleased to see me in a play about the places where they actually lived, using the language they actually spoke,” he said. “And after what they went through, it’s like a testimony to their lives — that they were not in vain.”
“The Adventures of Hershele Ostropolyer” will run June 3-27 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, 55 Lexington Ave., in Manhattan. For tickets, call The Baruch Performing Arts Center box office at (646) 312-5073 or go to www.folksbiene.org.
Barbara Bresler contributed to this article.
Worth the Trip
Don’t Miss the Train: The members of the band “Railroad Earth” don’t really enjoy trying to describe or categorize their music. Though they resist the terms “jam band” and “bluegrass,” their tunes have elements of both. “We’re a Country & Eastern band,” riffs violinist and vocalist Tim Carbone.
What is clear is that Queens music fans who relish a terrific evening of rock n’ roll should not miss “Railroad Earth” when they make their only NYC appearance on Thursday, June 17 at 8 p.m., on the World Yacht Marina, at Pier 81, on W. 41st St.
“I think the term ‘jam bands’ probably refers more to the fans than to the bands,” said Carbone, referring to the always-raucous evenings. “I think these fans just like live music.”
For tickets, go to railroadea
When Haggard Feeling is Fine: “Bryan and the Haggards” will celebrate the release of their debut album “Pretend it’s the End of the World” in a concert on Thursday, June 10 at 9:30 p.m., at Zebulon, 258 Wythe Ave. in Brooklyn. In addition to tenor sax player Bryan Murray and several other talented musicians, the band includes bass player Moppa Elliott, an Astoria resident who also heads Hot Cup Records, which is releasing the new recording.
No cover charge for the show. Call (718) 218-6934 or go to zebuloncaf
Emily Dickinson: Plants and Poems: You only have about 10 more days to see one of the most innovative botanical displays the city has seen in quite some time. Co-sponsored by the New York Botanical Garden and he Poetry Society of America, the exhibit combines the textual blossoms of the renowned poet with a re-creation of her 19th century New England flower garden. More than 50 artifacts related to Dickinson’s gardening and writing — illustrations, manuscripts and other objects will also be on display. There will also be a self-guided “Poetry Walk” featuring her poems mounted on poster boards throughout the outdoor gardens.
“Dickinson’s passion for gardening will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with her writing,” Garden officials write about the show. “Her poetry and letters are filled with the sort of knowing references to flowers, pollinators and the weather that reflect the intimate connection to nature that is the hallmark of a great gardener.”
The exhibit runs through June 13.
The NYBG is on the Bronx River Parkway at Fordham Road in the Bronx. Call (718) 817-8700 or go to www.nybg.org.
Staging Your Last Chance: Some of Broadway and Off-Broadway’s most prominent productions will be coming to the end of their runs in the near future before a set of new shows open. Among the shows closing in the near future are “A Behanding in Spokane” with actor Christopher Walken; “A Little Night Music,” with Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones; August Wilson’s “Fences”; “God of Carnage,” which has featured several casts; David Mamet’s “Race”; “Red,” which is nominated for seven Tony Awards; the revival of Tennessee Williams’ “Glass Menagerie;” and “The Temperamentals,” winner of the Drama Desk Outstanding Ensemble award.
Some of the shows will close as soon as this weekend, others will run through the month. For information on theaters, closing dates, and how to get tickets go to playbill.com.
Lincoln Center Theater is already planning two new shows for June, “On the Levee,” a family tale inspired by the Great Flood of 1927. The play is being staged at the Duke on 42nd Street. Tickets are available at the box office or by visiting Dukeon42.org or by calling 646.223.3010. Previews begin June 14 with opening night June 28.
Also on tap is “The Grand Manner,” which Lincoln Center describes as a love letter to Katharine Cornell, “The First Lady of the American Stage.” Opening night is June 24. For more information, visit the Lincoln Center Theater box office on W. 65 St. or telecharge.com or www.lct.org.
— Raphael Sugarman
©2010 Community News Group
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