Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
December 14, 2012
Here’s an interesting juxtaposition: a nationally-known professional theater troupe touring a sophomoric, amateurish holiday trifle; and a youth theater company presenting an earnest, thought-provoking drama with music. Like the title character in “ Yentl ,” I’ll opt for an educational experience every time.
The show started out as a short story, “ Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” by Isaac Bashevis Singer, published in Yiddish in 1962. A dozen years later, Singer co-wrote a Broadway play about this young girl in 19th century Poland who has “the soul of a man in the body of a woman.” So hungry for learning, she defies Talmudic law and dresses like a boy, so she can attend Yeshiva and pursue her education.
In 1983, Barbara Streisand made a musical film of “ Yentl ,” serving as director, co-writer, co-producer and star. Singer hated the movie, especially the “ kitchy ending.”
Now, as part of its Streisand-themed 20th season, the J*Company is offering a touching production of the dramatic musical. Though the songs, as Singer complained, aren’t reminiscent of Hasidic study-houses, and Yentl is pretty much the only one who sings, the incidental music has a kind of klezmer feel.
Petite, 17 year-old Elisa Greenberg does a masterful job conveying the indomitable spirit, ideals and passion of Yentl . The love triangle is there, in Yentl’s devotion to her study partner Avigdor and her marriage to Avigdor’s former fiancée, Hadass . But Yentl’s struggles and sacrifice maintain center stage. Director Joey Landwehr skillfully renders the ending more ambiguous and less schmaltzy than the movie. This Yentl doesn’t sail off to America in full female regalia, as Babs did. She wears a dress, but also a man’s frock coat and hat. Her future path remains unclear.
In this age of gender fluidity, the play becomes more poignant. It’s not just about what was denied women, and what one would risk in the pursuit of knowledge. It’s about self-knowledge and gender identity, too. And that makes it much more relevant and heart-rending.
Now, on the far end of the entertainment spectrum, there’s “The Ultimate Christmas Show (Abridged),” at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, another wild venture from the self-proclaimed “Bad Boys of Abridgment,” the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Their initial venture, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged),” was inspired and often brilliant. Subsequent shows have never reached that level of brainy wackiness. “The Ultimate Christmas Show” is perhaps the nadir of their repertoire.
Many of the bits are tired old re-treads. Despite its promise of being interfaith – “Happy, Merry, Christma -Kwanica-Hanzica !” they roar – it’s mostly the Jesus story, however distorted and paganized. There’s the requisite embarrassing audience participation. And singing and guitar-playing of a decidedly substandard sort. A friend dubbed the touring threesome The Reduced Talent Company. I’ll give them one thing, though: no fart jokes. And that’s a holiday gift in itself.
The J* Company production of “ Yentl ” runs through December 16 at the JCC in La Jolla.
“The Ultimate Christmas Show” continues through December 23 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre in Horton Plaza.
©2012 PAT LAUNER