Thursday, December 20, 2007

NJ Jewish Standard

Yiddish theater: A love story indeed
By Miriam Rinn | Published 12/14/2007

actually saw the show that is at the heart of Dan Katzir’s documentary "Yiddish Theater: A Love Story." A production of "Grineh Felder" ("Green Fields"), an old Yiddish play by Peretz Hirshbein, at the Mazer Theater in the Educational Alliance building on East Broadway, the play was the first — and last — that Zypora Spaisman put on after she resigned from the Folksbiene, the Yiddish theater long supported by the Workmen’s Circle. A less inviting location is hard to imagine — set in the basement, the theater is intersected by huge pillars so that just about wherever you’re sitting, your view is obfuscated — and the play had a desperate, pathetic quality, as of a thing mortally wounded.

Spaisman had been the Folksbiene’s major star and director for many years, perhaps too many, and when the powers that be finally suggested that it was time for her to retire and hand over the troupe to younger people, she left and started her own company. Katzir, whose voice is heard throughout the film, agreed to make the documentary during the winter of 2000 at Spaisman’s urging, and it’s that doughty ego and determination that is the true protagonist of this ultimately poignant film.

"Yiddish Theater" is constructed around the eight nights of Chanukah during that brutally cold winter, with each candle opening another chapter in Spaisman’s frantic attempt to find investors — as well as playgoers — for her production. Katzir follows her around, eating what seems to be many meals in her apartment, asking her questions about the show, about her career, and about her marriage. He develops his portrait as much from what isn’t said as from what is. We don’t realize she has children until the very end, and her husband doesn’t come up either until the film is more than half over. Spaisman’s life is the theater, evidently, and only the theater. She vehemently rejects the idea of retirement. What should I do, wander around the apartment? She asks the question with incredulity. At no point is there even the slightest consideration that the Yiddish theater might do better if it was handed over to the next generation. For Spaisman, as for so many of the larger-than-life personalities drawn to the entertainment world, the production doesn’t exist if she’s not in it.

Katzir also visits and talks with other actors in the Yiddish theater that flourished in New York during the first third of the twentieth century, including Spaisman’s co-stars. He handles these elderly people with great tenderness, but avoids sentimentalizing them excessively. Their crankiness and vanity are on full display, as is the transformation that comes over them when they step on the stage or begin to perform. Spaisman especially seems a frail, slightly addled old woman in some of the interviews, but as soon as she puts on her makeup and walks out on the stage, her stooped back straightens and she regains some of her charisma. A lovely few minutes are dedicated to Felix Fibitch, a former dancer. As he elegantly twirls his hands and undulates his arms, we see the graceful young man he once was. "Yiddish Theater: A Love Story" ends up being as much a meditation on old age as an investigation of the future of the Yiddish theater.

David Romeo, the group’s managing director and Spaisman’s general factotum, gets lots of screen time as he gently escorts the ladies to and from the theater on the snowy streets and desperately hustles for money to keep the show going. With an eerie resemblance to Steven Sondheim, Romeo is the heart of the documentary. If he knows that his search is fruitless as he makes call after call, he doesn’t let on; he keeps trying, perhaps for no other reason than to keep Spaisman going.

The Folksbiene National Yiddish Theater, under its new management, has succeeded far beyond anyone’s guess seven years ago. Its productions are much more sophisticated and clearly geared toward a younger, far more Americanized audience. Now at the JCC in Manhattan, the company is building its own theater on Second Avenue, the original home of Yiddish theater in New York, and has a vigorous board out raising money. Spaisman was indispensable in keeping the theater going for many years, but eventually it had to go on without her. Her resistance is as sad as it is understandable.

The film is showing at Two Boots Pioneer Theater, 155 East Third St., in Manhattan.

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