Jacob Gordin’s The Jewish King Lear – Relevant and Illuminating

Novelist/playwright Jacob Gordin was recruited by leading actor Jacob Adler to broaden the serious scope of Yiddish theater. 1892’s The Yiddish King Lear did just that. It was also the first of Gordin’s plays to be a critical and popular success in America. Inspired by Shakespeare’s King Lear, the plot revolves around wealthy Russian Jewish merchant Reb Dovidl Moishele (Joel Leffert) who, while still robust, divides his empire between three ostensibly devoted daughters. Here, he divests partly because he’s about to make an open ended pilgrimage to Israel.

L to R:  Joel Leffert, Jack Sochet, Thomas Daniels, Katie Hahn, Kelly D. Cooper (obscured), Tori Sicklick (Photo: Emily Hewitt)

The long, dense piece, albeit with musical respite, takes on social and religious change alive in many cultures even today. Women’s independence is of particular prescient importance. Gordin frames his Lear analogy with less grandiose, more accessible details than those of the bard. In his version, drama is high, while ultimate tragedy is traded for a happy ending. The ambitious production has a great deal to offer.

Daughters Etele (Deanna Henson) with her Orthodox Jewish businessman husband, Avrom Harif (Kelly D. Cooper), and Gitele (Katie Hahn) with her Hassidic husband, Moyshe Hasid (Jack Sochet), pander to the family patriarch in continual, sharp competition for favor. Youngest daughter Taybele (Olivia Killingsworth), like Shakespeare’s Cordelia her father’s favorite, is modest and honest, wanting only his love, unwilling to accept money she feels an unnecessary sacrifice.

Tyler Kent and Olivia Killingsworth (Photo: Hannah Stampleman)

Her bickering sisters are quick to point out Taybele has been (secularly) “taught too much.” Unlike their acquiescent mother Khane Leah (Diane Taylor) and themselves, the girl’s first inclinations are not blind obeisance. In fact, her ambition is to go to     St. Petersburg and become a doctor. The household is rounded out by devoted servant Trytel (Jeremy Lawrence) who acts as theatrical narrator, commentator, and wise fool.

Reb Dovidl’s announcement occurs on Purim, a happy holiday commemorating the salvation of the Jewish people in ancient Persia from Haman’s plot to eradicate them. Also at table is a third example of religious choice, Taybele’s teacher, Herr Yaffe  (Tyler Kent), a forward thinking German intellectual the sons-in-law refer to as a heretic. Sparks fly, but Taybele intercedes. Affinity will gradually become romance. It’s Herr Yaffe who refers to his host as the Jewish King Lear, adding “May God protect you from that end.”

Left: Diane Tyler and Joel Leffert (Photo: Tanya Parks); Right: Olivia Killingsworth and  Joel Leffert (Photo: Emily Hewitt)

NOTE: Scholem Aleichem’s 1884 Tevye and His Daughters depicts the character Hodel risking everything to go to Russia with political activist Perchik just as Gordin’s Taybele looks to an uncertain future with Herr Yaffe. This facet of the chronicle appears again in the iconic Fiddler on The Roof.

The company works together beautifully. Standouts:

Olivia Killingsworh is completely real as Taybele, her low key performance as sympathetic as it is nuanced. We feel with her.

Jeremy Lawrence’s Trytel is somewhat over the top, but compelling. The actor manages to imbue both comic and caustic moments with an undertone of truth. Passages of gravitas shimmer.

As Reb Dovidl, Joel Leffert personifies authority, dignity, pride, and stubbornness. Revelations palpably shatter. Debilitation is visceral. Leffert puts his whole self and body into the role. Bravo.

It’s easy to imagine Lawrence and Leffert acting together in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Both have skills that would adroitly expand within the parameters of that play.

Left: The original announcement of the play; Right: Jacob Grodin (Photos courtesy of Wikipedia)

Director Ed Chemaly successfully creates period, tradition, and the psychology of human drama. A stage full of actors moves with visual acuity. Music is well integrated, though some could easily be jettisoned without consequence. Intimate moments are vivid. Scenes of physical fighting and drunken chaos arrive rowdy and exciting if you don’t look too close. Fight Choreographer Joel Leffert has good ideas which, alas, are not confidently executed.

Mario Alonso’s minimal Set works – the screened walls are an effective touch. Costumes by Sidney Fortner are detailed and evocative.

Also featuring fine singing/dancing Revelers: Amanda (Mirye-Khare) Seigel- additionally Music Director, Thomas Daniels, Tori Sicklick, Clara Kundin

Opening Jeremy Lawrence and Joel Leffert (Photo: Emily Hewitt)

Jacob Gordin’s The Jewish King Lear
In a new translation by Ruth Gay
Directed by Ed Chemaly
The Metropolitan Playhouse
220A East 4th Street
Through May 27, 2018

About Alix Cohen (916 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.