by Leah Napolin & Isaac Bashevis Singer
Based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story Yentl, The Yeshiva Boy
Directed by Gordon Greenberg
With New Musical Composition by Jill Sobule
Asolo Repertory Theatre Company
Florida State U. Center for the Performing Arts/ Mertz Theatre
5555 N. Tamiami Tr., Sarasota, 941-351-8000
In repertory Jan. 20—April 26, 2012

Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker

Using new, mainly Kretzmer-punk music to establish atmosphere and scene transitions with chorus-like commentary, Asolo’s Yentl relies on its original story source for meaning and the previous play built from it for structure. It is a far cry from the Barbara Streisand musical film and from its feminist emphasis. That doesn’t mean it ignores sexism in 19th century Eastern European practices of Judaism in education, especially religious scholarship, as well as social standing and interaction. This play follows Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Yentl in her conflict as "a woman with the soul of a man" compelled to pursue, no matter the cost, her religious ideals. Reaching these is tied up—perhaps not overtly enough here—with  Yentl answering the question of her sexual identity and acting accordingly.

As in the ur story, we find the young girl onstage being secretly taught by her father. When he dies, the 17-year-old talented scholar disguises herself as a boy and seeks out a place, granted to males only, to study the Talmud. She meets such a man, Avigdor, who gets her into his small Yeshiva. As study partners, they bond more than do most male best friends. He can tell her of his engagement to Hadass, broken when his brother’s suicide—a disgrace on his family—is revealed; how Avigdor still loves her but is in acute sexual need. Yentl’s feelings for him (romantic love?) are so strong that she yearns to relieve his problems. Yet she cannot bring herself to tell him she’s what he’s thought would be wonderful were it so—a woman. They seek to solve their predicaments by Avigdor marrying a shop-owning widow and Yentl actually marrying Hadass! In a convoluted way, all will work out.

Though the plot is true to Singer, director Gordon Greenberg notably added a Klezmer rock band doing Jo Sobule’s punk-rock-Jewish-folk music with an equal stylistic mix in lyrics. He’s been quoted as saying the ‘‘music helps excavate the raw sexuality and passionate emotion throughout.“ Definitely not Singer’s emphasis! And Greenberg thinks the result is Shakespearean (Could he be referring to cross-dressing, mistaken identities, and a comedic—that is, one happy-marriage-and-family conclusion?) or  Brechtian—which shows he doesn’t have a clue about the essence of Brecht’s epic theater. Greenberg may be thinking of the presentation of episodes linked or, in this case broken, by choral musical commentary. Brecht would have cringed at stressing romance and emotion. There is more emphasis in this production on the comic aspects of Yentl’s embarassment at seeing naked boys in a bath house or the mystery of her solving the predicament of deflowering Hadass on their wedding night than on how societal, religious, educational and economic factors caused the principal characters‘ problems. As a Jewsploitation play with nudity, however, what Asolo Rep is presenting will probably be a big draw. Also memorable, as usual, will be creditable performances, especially by the winsome, never-waivering Hillary Clemens in the lead and Andrew Carter’s likeable Avigdor, no matter his clutzy scholarship and lack of sexual discipline. As Hadass, pretty Gisela Chipe wisely balances naivety and ignorance with evidencing a capacity for true love. In the strong Ensemble, Ashley Scalion and Luke Bartholomew stand out as vocalists and  townspeople. Real-life marrieds Howard Millman and Carolyn Michel blend well into similar roles here as well as varied minor characters, religious and secular.

There’s an impressive full stage, top-to-bottom backdrop of a caged, stacked library full of  Jewish religious books that presents a proper scenic metaphor. The only problem is it’s not dynamic, something that could be said as well for the waning moments of  the play. Tech artists who deserve recognition include set designer Brian Sidney Bembridge along with designers Mattie Ullrich, costumes; Paul Miller, lights. Josh Rhodes‘ choreography worked in small, crowded side spaces as well as providing broader movement on the raised center-stage platform. Kelly A. Borgia stage-managed the mostly busy 2 hour, 15 minute production.

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