KPBS AIRDATE: November 10, 1993
In the haunting stories of Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, we are always confronted with the conflicting forces of light and darkness, the collision of cynicism and mysticism. In his tales, he created a magical, sometimes grotesque world, often dominated by demonic forces. He peopled that world with powerfully realistic characters and wrapped them in a prayer shawl of loneliness and Jewish alienation. But there is heart-wrenching universality in every tale. And just as in life, absolutely nothing ever turns out the way you’d expect it to.
Along with dramatist Eve Friedman, Singer himself wrote the stage adaptation of his 1964 short story, “Teibele and Her Demon.” Billed as “an erotic fable,” the piece is inherently, incredibly dramatic.
The year is 1880, the place, a remote, fictional Polish shtetl called Frampol. Here we meet Teibele, a literate, successful dry-goods store owner, a uniquely brainy beauty who is also an “aguna,” an untouchable because she is an abandoned wife. The shleppy teacher’s assitant, Alchonon, adores her from afar. His unnoticed passion makes him court her fiercely, in the guise of an oversexed demon. Her loneliness makes her ache for him and his mystical visits. And, as I said, it being a Singer story, nothing turns out as you’d anticipate.
This is an encore production of the highly acclaimed presentation of “Teibele” by the Blackfriars Theatre in 1990 — when they had their own little space, when times were better.
Beeb Salzer’s brilliantly suggestive set, essence of Chagall, fit snugly into the Bristol Court Playhouse, but it feels a little lost in the more massive Hahn Cosmopolitan Theatre. Ralph Elias’ detailed, stylized staging is missing some of its balletic precision. But McKerrin Kelly has lost none of her melancholic radiance as the central character. I miss Barry Mann as the sensual Demon, but Richard Perloff is quite appealing. I only wish he were more of a schlemiel as Alchonon; his two personas need to be more distinct. There’s some scratchy, squawky klezmer music in Lawrence Czoka’s evocative sound design, but all the mournfulness is there.
These are all petty gripes. The cast is solid and the story is mesmerizing. This play deserves to be seen, demands to be seen. Not only because it appeals on so many levels — how desperate we can become in loneliness, how powerfully we can be affected by things spiritual, how often we can find comfort and reality in a world of fantasy.
This production should be seen because it means the survival of a very vital theatrical company. Blackfriars has lost its home and, despite an ecstatically received trip to Russia, the company is seriously ailing and may not recover. Their dissolution would be a profound loss to the San Diego theater community. They were hailed as the smallest professional Actors Equity company west of the Mississippi. They deserve to be hailed again. Take all your friends and family to see “Teibele.” You’ll be moved, and a theater may be saved.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.