Tevye Served Raw (Garnished With Jews) is a lively new production now playing at New York City’s Playroom Theater. A lovingly feisty tribute to Russian Jewish writer Sholem Aleichem and then some, the show (in English and Yiddish with English super-titles) promises the audience “the Tevye tales they left out of the musical.” That “musical”, of course, is Fiddler on the Roof, which was based on Aleichem’s Tevye and His Daughters and other Tales. Fiddler made its way to the masses via Broadway in 1964 and via the big screen in 1971, thus cementing its status in pop culture forever. At the heart of that musical was the eternal character of “Teyve”, who was created from Aleichem’s interactions with a real-life dairy man he’d met in Tsarist Russia. Doing double duty as show creator and actor, Allen Lewis Rickman glues on a scruffy beard to play the charismatic Teyve for many of the play’s dramatic vignettes. Since Tevye was ultimately a fictional character, there are obviously no existing photos of him– but we the audience can make a safe bet that if Aleichem’s famous milkman miraculously came to life at the Playroom Theater that evening, he’d look, talk, and act a lot like the flesh-and-blood Teyve we meet in this show. Rickman’s touching portrayal of Tevye, however, is only one highlight of many in this high-spirited variety show of sorts– which features tasty comedy and searing drama equally served up in generous portions by Rickman and fellow show creators/actors Shane Baker and Yelena Shmulenson. In addition to the Tevye stories, Tevye Served Raw also features some smartly humorous sketches with names like “Strange Jews on a Train” and “The Yiddish Sisyphus”. Yes, bubbeleh, the scenes do indeed live up to their titillating titles. Hey, there’s even music! The audience is treated to Shlof Mayn Kind (Sleep, My Child), a well-known Yiddish lullaby with ukulele by Baker and hauntingly beautiful vocals by Shmulenson. I challenge anyone to hear this song and not get… well, verklempt.
But back to “Tevye”… As mentioned before, Aleichem’s protagonist claims his place as Yiddish theater’s arguably most well-known father: the tough yet ultimately gentle patriarch of six strong-willed daughters. Clearly, with so many children, there were no shortages of stories for Tevye to share. In the play’s second segment, “Teyve and Chava”, the father catches his daughter reading a book (hopefully, “a book you don’t read in the attic”) by Maxim Gorsky– an author who happens to bear a strong physical resemblance to Chava’s secret Gentile paramour Chvedka. In another story, we learn that the fiercely proud Teyve is not too proud to beg for the welfare of his family: in this case begging for compassion from a powerful Christian holy man. The creators of the show strive to tell the stories we didn’t learn in Fiddler, with all the poverty and anti-Semitism intact. At the end of Fiddler, the members of Tevye’s family are alive, and most are emigrating together to America. In Aleichem’s original stories… well, let’s just say that it didn’t exactly happen that way. One of the show’s later vignettes, “Get Thee Gone”, has Tevye speaking directly and often passionately to the audience. If this show’s high-energy comedy segments make the audience laugh out loud, this particular moment of pathos– expertly and sensitively performed by Rickman– will likely bring the audience to tears. Anyone who comes to Tevye Served Raw asking “Was life on the shtetl as hard as Fiddler on the Roof made it out to be?” will get their answer: “Even harder…”.
All three performers– Allen Lewis Rickman, Shane Baker, and Yelena Shmulenson– are gifted at both comedy and drama. Baker, in particular, is a revelation with his wordless comedic acting. His seemingly infinite collection of facial expressions are displayed perfectly in the intimate setting (64 seats) of the Playroom Theater. The talented Shmulenson can skillfully play a wide-eyed girl in one scene and a long-suffering wife/mother in another. In the play’s encore, “A Stepmother’s Trash-Talk” (mirthfully described as “the one and only horror story ever written by Sholem Aleichem.”), her character initially requires some suspension of disbelief, if only because Shmulenson’s youthful beauty makes it challenging to believe her as a shrewish mother-in-law. That said, the play’s idiosyncratic,audience-participation conclusion is riotously funny. Allen, as mentioned previously, is mesmerizing in his scenes as Tevye. The transformation is so powerful that when the beard comes off, you may be fooled into believing that there are four rather than three actors in the cast.
By now you may be wondering if the Tevye Served Raw can be enjoyed by those unfamiliar with Yiddish. The answer is a resounding, “Yes!”. For some segments, the English subtitles are projected onto the stage. In others, the players take turns translating– and in a creative touch of comedic mastery, the translation becomes part of the humor. It works extraordinary well (especially when the English words “clams” and “bacon” arise in the translation of one scene. Can I get an “Oy vey!”?) But more importantly, the actors’ commitment to their roles and their collective energy truly transcend language. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. And you’ll be guaranteed to expand your repertoire of Yiddish insults…
Tevye Served Raw (Garnished With Jews), presented by The Congress For Jewish Culture in association with Benjamin Feldman and Khozey Inbud, LLC, continues through Tuesday, August 14th at The Playroom Theater, 151 West 46th Street, 8th Floor, New York City. Visit www.TevyeServedRaw.com for tickets and more information.
(Photos by Jonathan Smith.)