Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Off Off Broadway: Yentl

Isaac Bashevis Singer’s classic short story, “Yentl The Yeshiva Boy,” is subject to many interpretations.  On a politically correct feminist level, it is the story of Yentl, a strong-willed young Jewish girl whose love of learning is so great that she rebels against the strictures of her male-dominated society, posing as a boy in order to enter a yeshiva and study Talmud (something that only Jewish men and not Jewish women were permitted to do in Poland in the 1800s). A deeper alternative interpretation, however, focuses on Yentl’s transgender issues: as she saw herself, she was “neither one sex nor the other” and she had “the soul of a man in the body of a woman.”
Singer and Leah Napolin adapted Singer’s story for the stage and in 1975 Yentl premiered on Broadway starring Tovah Feldshuh.  Less than a decade later, the play was adapted for the screen and starred Barbra Streisand.  The play remained true to the original short story but the motion picture did not: in the play, Yentl, even after being found out, opts to live out her life as Anshel, her male alter ego, despite her obvious strong emotional attachment to Avigdor, her male yeshiva study partner; in the movie, on the other hand, she expresses her true feelings for Avigdor and re-assumes her female personae.
The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective is currently staging a revival of Yentl at the Gene Frankel Theatre on Bond Street in lower Manhattan and, to its credit, it is the play, not the movie, that is being revived.  And to its further credit, Beautiful Soup has managed to blend both the politically correct and the psycho-sexual interpretations into one seamless whole.
The principal actors in this revival are Mallory Berlin as Yentl/Anshel; Peter Oliver as Avigdor; and Kim Sweet as Hadass, Avigdor’s first love.  All three are excellent in their respective roles but Ms Berlin is truly outstanding , exhibiting both her sexual ambivalences and her religio-socio-political rebellion.

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