KLEYNKUNST! Warsaw's Brave and Brilliant Yiddish Cabaret
nytheatre.com review by Lisa Ferber
November 25, 2007
KLEYNKUNST is a loving tribute to Yiddish cabaret between World Wars I and II, researched and written by Rebecca Joy Fletcher, who performs along with Stephen Mo Hanan and pianist Bob Goldstone. The title is Yiddish for "little art," which refers to the rebellious cabaret that sprung up across Poland's urban settings, including Warsaw. The songs here are delivered in Yiddish and English (the Yiddish songs have English and Russian subtitles) by the two game performers.
Folksbiene creates a warm, homey atmosphere at its shows. The host first comes out and asks the audience in Yiddish who speaks Yiddish, and then in Yiddish asks who does not speak a word of Yiddish. He then tells us that this is material with "kishkes, guts." The production involves humor and sadness, and much of the humor is political. Songs and skits include Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's "Mack the Knife," "The Ararat Hymn," "Vi Shlekht Un Vi Biter (How Hard and How Bitter)" and "The Last Jew in Poland." Song lyrics include: "Yossileh's a Frenchy / A sentimental sap / He promises the world to you / And then gives you the clap" and "My cousin Moshe / Doesn't know from kosher / His seafood cholent is fit for a gourmet." In one skit about a maid who can't stand her employer, we get this fun bit of dialogue: "You should be like a chandelier: Burn by day and hang by night. I quit!" And in some standup comedy: "I tried my hand at being a mohel [person who performs circumcision]. I couldn't cut it."
The performances range between sassy, slightly sexy, cheerful, and sad. There are no extravagant sets or complicated dance routines, rather an overall simple feel. There is clearly an outsider feeling to this art, like a bunch of kids getting together to make fun of their teacher. When the art form first began, there was tremendous freedom in terms of satirizing political rulers and anti-Semites in general. Then, as the threat became more serious, the humor about these topics ended.
Another translation for kleynkunst (this I learned from the helpful press materials) is "intimate art," focusing on the physical immediacy between the performer and the audience, which leads to my one problem with the production: The JCC seems too large a venue for such an intimate show. I kept wanting more, a bigger production, more lights, more performers. Once I settled in to realizing this was what it is, I enjoyed it, but still I think the overall tenderness and intimacy would have come across more successfully in a smaller venue. Still, I found myself thinking about the show the following day. This was a short, vibrant period in Yiddish cultural history, and one can't help but feel sad at how quickly it had to end. Much congratulations to Fletcher and Folksbiene for their dedication.