Brothel Intrigue, with a Modern Twist: Got fun nekome at the New Yiddish Rep
I’m a Yiddish theatre historian who has often written about and taught Sholem Asch’s 1907 play Got fun nekome (God of Vengeance). Still, it was only when I walked into La Mama on Monday to see a matinee production by the New Yiddish Rep that I realized I had never seen a full production of the play, which is to say, I had never really seen the play at all.
As every theatre scholar (along with anyone who has ever slogged through reading Shakespeare or Chekhov in high school English class) knows all too well, reading plays is a poor substitute for seeing productions. Plays take on a different shape when they are performed well; they grow deeper and more complex, they linger on moments that shock and delight, they cause audience members to gasp and wonder and emote and feel chills running down your spine, they transport you to another world. All of this was on full display in the New Yiddish Rep’s rich, evocative, and utterly riveting production.
First, a word of context. Sholem Asch (1880-1957) was a prominent Yiddish novelist, playwright, and essayist; Got fun nekome was both his most famous and his most controversial play. In Asch’s play, brothel owner Yankl Tshaptshovitsh (played with terrifying paternal authority by Shane Baker) and his former prostitute wife Soreh (director and actor Eleanor Reissa) try, and fail, to protect their teenage daughter Rifkele (Shayna Schmidt, in a stunning Yiddish debut) from being tainted by their business. Though they live just above the brothel, they do not permit Rifkele to venture downstairs or make friends with anyone in their social environment, which thoroughly isolates Rifkele in a friendless world. Yankl and Sarah commission a Torah scroll for Rifkele, which they plan to keep in her bedroom to ward off evil until she is married to a “respectable” Jewish boy.
But of course, Rifkele is drawn to the world downstairs, and in particular, to the prostitutes who live in the cellar below. They are her only friends in an unforgiving house where her every move is controlled by the iron fist of her father, who seeks respectability for his daughter – at any cost. Rifkele falls for one of the prostitutes, Manke (the captivating Melissa Weisz), with explosive consequences for everyone involved.
The New Yiddish Rep’s production is no period play. The play itself feels remarkably modern, even 110 years later, and the New Yiddish Rep has given Got fun nekome a production to match. The costumes are contemporary and underscore the religious and moral fault lines of the play: Yankl and Soreh, the former pimp-and-prostitute-turned-devout-parents, are dressed in demure, modern Orthodox garb. Indeed, Soreh’s wig, and the hurried business of putting it on when “respectable people” are coming to visit, plays a prominent role in the stage business. The pimp, Shloyme (Luzer Twersky), dons an ill-fitting suit and hat. The prostitutes wear short skirts, high heels, and glittery outfits that would fit right in on, say, New Year’s Eve in contemporary New York. Rifkele’s attire spans the two worlds. When still under her parents’ control, she wears a modest schoolgirl’s plaid jumper, her hair in twin braids. Later, when she changes into leggings and boots, under Manke’s influence, her parents implore her to “put on a dress” again.
The set is also striking. In the intimate space of this ninety-person theatre, it’s almost as though the audience is living in the house along with Yankl, Soreh, and Rifkele. English supertitles (the entire show is in Yiddish) are projected onto a roof-shaped triangle at the top of the set – a clever touch that accentuates the domestic nature of the space and invites the audience to consider the supertitles as part of the house itself, rather than a digital intrusion.
The company is remarkably strong. Shayna Schmidt as Rifkele is particularly captivating in a skillful and nuanced portrayal of a girl forced to choose between two unforgiving worlds. When Schmidt is onstage, there is no looking away. Eleanor Reissa as Soreh is similarly riveting. In her portrayal, the relationship between Rifkele and her mother becomes just as significant – if not more so – as the relationship between Rifkele and Manke. Melissa Weisz’s Manke brings heat and verve to the steamy scenes with Rifkele. Also deserving of special mention are the effervescent Caraid O’Brien as Hindl, Rachel Botchan as Reyzl, and Mira Kessler as Basya, each of whom imbued the roles of the prostitutes with a depth I had not encountered in reading and re-reading the play.
The New Yiddish Rep’s production of Got fun nekome is timely. Award-winning playwright Paula Vogel’s ode to the play, Indecent, is scheduled to open on Broadway this April after a critically-acclaimed Off-Broadway run. But this production is no mere prelude to Vogel’s production. It is, like Indecent, a major triumph for the contemporary Yiddish stage.
Got fun nekome is adroitly directed by Eleanor Reissa, who imbues the scenes with such vigor and intensity that you scarcely notice that ninety minutes have gone by without intermission. The action bounds and hurtles forward and carries us along with it, to a devastating ending that you won’t soon forget.
Got fun nekome runs through January 22nd at LaMama Experimental Theater (74A E. 4th Street, New York). Starring Shane Baker, David Mandelbaum, Caraid O’Brien, Eleanor Reissa, Rachel Botchan, Shayna Schmidt, Melissa Weisz, Luzer Twersky, Amy Coleman, Mira Kessler, and Eli Rosen. Tickets here.