The play had a short Broadway run in 1975, but the story is best known to the general public because of the film version, which was written, produced and directed by and starred Barbara Streisand.
The tale centers on Yentl, a girl whose father, a learned Orthodox Rabbi, defies religious custom and teaches his daughter to read and debate Jewish law and theology. When he dies, she is at a loss as to how to continue to learn, to achieve. She cuts off her hair, dresses as a young man, enters a “yeshiva” (a religious training school), and lives as a man.
Her unusual friendship with Avigdor, her study partner, and marriage to Hadass, Avigdor’s former fiancé, sets the story on a track of intrigue.
To truly understand “YENTL,” requires a knowledge of Orthodox Judaism as practiced in the shetls (villages) of pre-World War II eastern Europe, as well as Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Orthodox Judaism centers on the belief in one, all knowing God, and adherence to a strict interpretation and application of the laws and ethics of the Torah. The belief system in Eastern Europe, before the Holocaust, intertwined religious laws with traditions, mysticism and superstitions. These beliefs carried over into patterns of daily life and influenced such things as the foods eaten, the patterns for birth and marriage and death, the clothing worn, and the role of males and females.
Singer lived for much of his formative years in a Polish/Russian shtetl, and was well trained in all aspects of Orthodox Judaism.
The winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, Singer, like his greatest literary influences, Chekhov and Maupassant, is a realist and writer of personal morality. He is noted for his stark depictions of innocence crushed by circumstance. His characters often are traumatized, desperate and caught up in intra-familial strife. His writing often depicts Jews having personal religious conflicts.
His modern thoughts led to his writing about what he referred to as “female homosexuality” and “transvestism.” He considered the latter to be one of the driving forces in, “YENTL THE YESHIVA BOY.” Yentl’s assertions that she is “neither one sex nor another” and “has the soul of a man in the body of woman” leads to the assumption that she could well have transgendered tendencies. In addition, Yentl’s true love for both Avigdor and Hadass, and their returning of that love, blurs the lines between love of women for women, women for men and men for men.
In contrast to Sholem Aleichem, Singer’s rival for being the voice of the now gone life pattern of the Eastern European Jewish people, Singer was serious in his writing, seldom using, as Sholem Aleichem did, humor and playful irony to gain his point.
It is the consideration of this last issue, that leads to awareness of one of the weaknesses of the Cleveland Play House production. Director Michael Perlman shows a carefree hand in developing the script. From the onset, there seems to be a desire to lighten up the proceedings. The cast mingles with the audience before the production starts, joking, interacting. They are in costume, but ignore Jewish tradition of men not touching or hugging women, setting a confusing tone. The before curtain remarks are done jokingly in Yiddish and English. The idea is clever, but doesn’t set the right tone for this script. YENTL is not a comedy. If taken as such, much of the intended meaning disappears.
On the positive side, Therese Anderger as Hadass, Ben Melh as Avigdor and Rebecca Gibel, as Yentl are all excellent. They develop clear characterizations. Dorothy Silver adds the proper tone as Yachna. (BTW...for the uninitiated, Yachna, and the other women sometimes spit three times through forked fingers when they are discussing a positive action, such as a marriage or a birth. This is an old superstitious action to ward off the “meesa meshina,” the evil spirit.)
But, production questions abound.
Depending on which area a person comes from, pronunciations differ. But the Hebrew pronunciations should have been uniform to represent that these people are from the same place. Why the great variance of Hebraic sounds?
Most of the cast speaks in standard English, representing commonality of language, but one cast member uses an indefinable accent and overplays his part for laughs. Why?
A general air of superficiality invades the production. Why? Unless done with reality, the play loses its “tam” (Yiddish for taste), fringes on mockery of the way of life being depicted, and weakens the accomplishment of the author’s purpose.
Robin Vest’s scenic design, risers to depict multi-settings, with its symbolic “chuppah (a canopy, in this case covering the home of action for the play) generally works, but the set for the important “mikvah” (ritual bath) scene lacks clarity and realism.
Potential audience members should be aware that there is both male and female nudity in the production.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: The opening night audience for YENTL failed to give the standard Cleveland standing ovation. This might be construed as an omen that there was a disconnect between the viewers and the production. It’s too bad. YENTL is an important script, which tells a fascinating story of a writer, ahead of his time, who weaves Jewish history with modern issues. I wanted so much to really be swept away by the production. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
YENTL runs through February 2, 2014 at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.