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Shlemiel the First.

The idea of a musical based on Yiddish folk sources would normally make me cringe. Fiddler, right? A sentimentalized portrait of Jewish life in the Old World that flattered us with the illusion that we had been wafted back to the shtetl, and that life there was nothing that wasn't loving, pious, and good. So it was not only great fun but also tremendously satisfying to watch David Gordon's staging of Shlemiel the First, Robert Brustein's adaptation of the play by I. B. Singer. Using the skills and wit developed through three decades in postmodern dance-theater, Gordon kept his material both properly distanced and continuously meaningful.

Actors switch roles with a change of coats, the sages of Chelm include a black man and a woman, and in the cleverest stroke, Shlemiel's wife (Rosalie Gerut) gets dressed for the day by stepping into a stiff petticoat that turns the slender actress into a barrel-shaped yenta. The conventions that govern the presentation of Jewish folk life are exposed as conventions, and what still remains of that life is freed of the emotional baggage it is usually made to carry. The starchy textures of Yiddish words, the logical reversals of Jewish wit, the rubbery dance of Jewish gestures and facial expressions, and above all the whirling, plunging, zigzagging cackles and sighs of klezmer music--these were the show's great pleasures and great truths. Charles Levin (as Gronam Ox, the sage of sages) was the best of a fine cast, sporting the look of a man perpetually delighted with the quip that has just popped into his head, tearing off his lines like big hunks of challah. The Klezmer Conservatory Band supplied the thrust that allowed Gordon to move things along at nearly the pace of a comedy routine, while his eye for spacing and movement kept everything clean and clear.

In fact, Gordon's postmodern dislocations proved remarkably compatible with the liberation from solemnity and logic already inherent in the ironic subtraditions of Chelm, the town of fools, and of Singer, the mocking imp of Yiddish literature. In Shlemiel, the tale of a man (Larry Block) who commits adultery with his own wife, folly shows its power to raise a fresher and more beautiful world by not being smart enough to know that all we have is this one. Singer calls this sin: the imagination as adulterer to its spouse reality. Not something you're likely to learn from Fiddler.
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Title Annotation:John Jay Theater, New York, New York
Author:Deresiewicz, Bill
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Dance Review
Date:Nov 1, 1994
Words:404
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