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The Essence

A Yiddish theater dim sum

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This year’s New York International Fringe Festival offers a delightful introduction to the original international language — Yiddish! Three talented and familiar performers on the local Yiddish theater scene — Steve Sterner, Alan Lewis Rickman, and Yelena Shmulenson — have updated a revue they introduced in 2007 at the New Yiddish Rep, added new material and songs, and are presenting it at the Moss Theater at 440 Lafayette, right across from the Public Theatre.

Through songs, skits, and narrative, “The Essence” attempts to give the audience an overview of Yiddish theater from its origins in Romania to its establishment on New York’s Lower East Side, with some sidelong glances at the Yiddish theater in the Soviet Union and Israel. Writer-director Rickman avoids the standard sentimentality (although not the Eastern European biases against German Jews) and provides the audience with a fast-moving, funny, and informative show. One of the funniest bits is his deadpan interpretation of the lyrics to “Papirosen” as Sterner sings the maudlin Yiddish version of “The Little Match Girl.” Sterner is also hilarious as a Yiddish-speaking Jesus Christ in a skit dramatizing the fact that Christian missionaries are still publishing the Gospels in Yiddish. Who could their intended converts be?

Even for the viewer familiar with the colorful history of Yiddish theater, there’s a lot of interesting material here. Who knew that John Barrymore was a fan, going frequently to the Lower East Side? Or that Bing Crosby, “one of the whitest people on earth,” loved the Yiddish theater? Rickman makes the point that the acting styles of Yiddish theater, its set designs, its cult of personality, all affected the American theater as well. There was constant crossover, with Yiddish theater stars going to vaudeville and Broadway, and Yiddish theaters translating and performing English-language shows. When Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” was produced in Yiddish, people swore that it must have been the original, and the Broadway version a translation. That makes perfect sense to many Jews who know the play.

Fans of the Coen brothers will recognize Rickman and Shmulenson as the Yiddish-speaking husband and wife at the beginning of their film “A Serious Man,” and both actors have appeared off-Broadway, in film, television, and many productions of the Folksbiene — National Yiddish Theater. Musical director Sterner also has performed in many Folksbiene productions, as well as “Oh, Brother!” “Yiddle with a Fiddle,” and “Vagabond Stars.” He is the house pianist at the Film Forum, accompanying silent movies.

Although “The Essence” pays attention to the sad story of the Yiddish theater in the Soviet Union, where its champion Solomon Mikhoels was murdered by Stalin, the leader he’d revered, and in Israel, the only country that expressly prohibited Yiddish theater, most of the show is a celebration of the wit, charm, and verve of this integral part of Jewish culture. And the future looks promising, according to Rickman. After all, Yiddish is the preferred Jewish language of the gay community, and we all know that there is no theater without them.

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