The Big Bupkis! A Complete Gentile's Guide to Yiddish Vaudeville
nytheatre.com review by Rachel Grundy
November 28, 2009
The Big Bupkis! claims to be the complete guide to Yiddish vaudeville theatre for all us Gentiles out there—a summing up of the best (or worst, depending on your opinion of deliberately awful jokes) of the genre in just over an hour. As one of the aforementioned Gentiles, I found the show to be alternately funny, bewildering, engaging, and moving. Not bad for 80 minutes.
The Workman's Circle is not a custom-built theatre—it looks more like a classroom, replete with ceiling tiles and fluorescent lighting. What the New Yiddish Rep's set designer, George Xenos, has managed to do with the space is impressive—artful use of traditional red theatre curtains creates a proscenium-style playing space that is surprisingly intimate for being in the middle of a room. The lighting by Nikolas Priest helps to enclose the space, but is at times a little patchy, extra lights having to be bumped in occasionally if the stage is too dark. The live band (piano and drums) is a great addition, and they contribute to the humor with mistimed rim shots and comical expressions. The piano player (Steve Sterner), who was directly in my line of vision, constantly amused me with his deadpan expressions, gum-chewing, and overall appearance of a harassed journalist. There was also a guest appearance by a fabulously virtuosic clarinet player, who delivered a riveting performance of Yiddish music accompanied by the house band as an interlude to the main show.
Usually, vaudeville-style theatre does not require a plot, as it is a presentation of multiple acts in one evening's entertainment. In this production, Shane Bertram Baker does provide a semblance of narrative by telling the audience about his introduction to, and training in, the Yiddish traditions during the course of the show. This serves as the throughline to propel him from a series of wonderful sleight-of-hand magic tricks to a story of a bullfight told in Yiddish, and keeps the audience's attention as one man performs what ten or eleven would in a normal vaudeville show. The section of the show when Baker tells the bullfight story is particularly captivating—the rich sounds of the Yiddish language and Baker's wonderful expressions and vocal skills are very engaging, drawing the audience into this rather poignant story even while we had to shift our gaze from Baker's performance to the English supertitles suspended above the stage. Of course, there is also a drag act, a dog peeing on the stage, and an attempt to behead a member of the audience, so abrupt changes of mood and style are the order of the day. Groan-worthy jokes and visual gags are also an integral part of vaudeville style, and Baker does not shy away from the very obvious humor of these sections. To a modern audience, this aspect of vaudeville can seem dated or become tedious, but in a short show like The Big Bupkis!, it can be celebrated as an important part of the tradition without boring the audience.
Recommended for Gentiles and Jews alike.