The Megile of Itzik Manger
nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
April 24, 2013
A scene from The Megile of Itzik Manger | Michael Priest
At 98 years old, the Folksbiene (National Yiddish Theatre) is looking great. Continuing their history of staging Yiddish theater, they are bringing back an interesting musical The Megile of Itzik Manger, which was a popular Yiddish hit in Israel in the 1960s and then came to Broadway. In those days, Yiddish was understood by immigrants in Israel but not officially sanctioned. As the show's producers point out, Yiddish is a language that has never distanced itself from Jewishness (Hebrew sometimes being completely secular). Perhaps this explains why the show is a retelling of the pageant-rich holiday of Purim, which celebrates the ability of Persian Jews to survive a massacre circa 400 B.C.E.
I thought I was an expert on the holiday of Purim, but I admit I was not familiar with the Jewish poet Itzik Manger, who graced the Warsaw literary scene in the 1930s. Maybe your expertise is skewed the other way, and you may appreciate the surreal inclusion of 1930s sewing machine operators in the Purim story. In any case, this is a fun show that I recommend to those who like any of these things: circus, holidays, big beards, klezmer music, poetry, and one-liners.Supertitles in English and Russian make the story accesible.
The "megile" is the scroll which is read on Purim. It would be hard to read inside this show's circus big top, though, and so we get a nice balance of show and tell. The main characters in the story, such as the perpetually drunk, red-nosed King Akeshveyresh (Stephen Mo Hanan) and soon-to-be-Queen Esther prance around while the rest of the masked and dextrous ensemble sing, do somersaults, work with puppets, and hang upside down. This adds surprising depth to some characters, such as Queen Vashti (Rebecca Keren), who this time around is shown to be a feminist with a husband who disrespects her and then executes her for talking back. Esther (Stacey Harris), the ingenue wife Akeshveyresh chooses, is secretly in love with the itinerant tailor Fastrigosse (Andrew Keltz), who later quite rightly calls his king a tyrant and is executed. This is the first intrusion of 20th Century Europe into the story, and beautifully reflects something that can probably be understood in greater detail through reading Itzik Manger's poems. Meanwhile, Esther's uncle Mordkhe (Jonathan Brody), who is covered by a furry mask reminiscent of a Chinese guardian lion, faces off against the King's corrupt minister Homen (also Jonathan Brody) and his evil wife Zeyresh (Stav Meishar). Accusations of terrorism threaten all the "Zhids" who live in Persian territory, and that "shikker" of a King is under the sway of Homen...until....
Popular Israeli composer Dov Seltzer (winner of the Kinor David, the Israeli "Oscar") wrote the music for this show, while the Book and Lyrics are by Itzik Manger, Shmuel Bunim, Haim Hefer, and Dov Seltzer. The band (Zisl Slepovich, Lauren Brody, Dmitry Ishenko, and Matt Temkin) plays rousing dance numbers as well as songs full of longing (to turn into a bird and fly away, or to buy a Singer sewing machine). So it is an over-the-top and also a balanced show. I really did not notice until now that Mordkhe and Homen never meet onstage, which is an accomplishment for veteran director Motl Didner. Much effort went into the big top set and masks, and Merete Muenter's choreography amps the circus mood.
I don't know if there's an end of the world feeling nowadays with the world's economy, but The Megile of Itzik Manger feels appropriate. Or rather, "die galus iz die galus" (exile is exile) so why not be happy?