Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review: Exploring a Scary, New Modern World

By Ed Malin

At Theater for the New City, you can now see the premiere of the late Lu Hauser’s play Prague, 1912 (the Savoy Café Yiddish Theatre).  Director George Ferencz guided Hauser in the evolution of the play, which is loosely based on real-life Yiddish theater personalities Itzhak Lowy and Mania Tshissik. These performers’ alter-egos, Jak Lowy (played by the indomitable John Barilla) and Mme. Trassek (the ethereal Jenne Vath) meet and inspire an emerging artist, who is, naturally, represented here by one of his characters, Gregor Samsa (the dynamo that is Jason Howard).  Ferencz regularly works with these actors, who are part of the ensemble known as “The Experimentals”, so come see this show for a few hours of fine-tuned ecstasy.
We see a stage with a beautiful frame (designed by Konako Nagayama) evocative of art nouveau posters.  Cornet player Alex Wilborn regales us with some of the most spirited traditional Eastern European songs, such as Rudolf Friml’s “The Vagabond King”, ”The Potato Song”, “Whiskey” and “Mazel-Tov”.  As some of these tunes might suggest, we are about to encounter some folks who live on the fringes of society.  Mme. Trassek is seen hawking hot potatoes. This is what she does when she is not pouring out her emotions on stage, in Yiddish fashion.  The view of Yiddish theater given here is one that accesses whole other worlds of sentimentality and power.  Lowy and Trassek are prone to break into song and dance at any moment. We see Mme. Trassek give a top-of-the-line Shakespearean performance, in which she plays King Lear, here called “Queen Leah”.  Lowy and Trassek do not always see eye-to-eye, and for this particular show Lowy has spent the advertising budget on gratifying his own desires.  The only person in the audience is Gregor Samsa, a young salesman sent by his father to do bourgeois things that make complete sense.  Samsa, who is often seen writing letters to his father, staring penetratingly into the audience and not at the words he writes, may be somewhat square but is sensitive to other things.
photo by Kamoier Williams
Lowy and Trassek do have love in their lives.  If only she hadn’t discovered that Lowy’s gift of a wreath of flowers had been lifted from a nearby cemetery. As their act in Prague is not panning out, the duo will need to hit the road, perhaps to Warsaw. What is a budding writer to do? Samsa, who is Franz Kafka and vice-versa, is inspired to write a story about a “Hunger Artist”. He senses the great passion in Lowy and Trassek’s lives, one which will keep them striving as long as they can negotiate a hostile world. (Lowy was ultimately murdered by the Nazis in the Treblinka Extermination Camp.) As the show’s music and spirit imply, the world is full of change.  Samsa, as fans may appreciate, is headed towards his own kind of “Metamorphosis”.
In its opening weekend, this show has already attracted large crowds of enthusiasts.  I am motivated to read more of Lu Hauser’s work, and likely many people will be opening up volumes of Kafka.  The show has an experimental edge.  It brings together several interesting pieces by its author, and borrows the cadence of the very influential Yiddish performers who enlivened Eastern Europe and its sister realm, New York. (The art framing the stage includes two small Yiddish phrases that read “New York”.)  Marc Marcante’s set is both homey and alienating, as fits the performance. Sally Lesser’s costumes include some nice, impoverished artist clothes and some surprise highbrow theatrical outfits. Hilary Shawn’s wigs also help us step backwards in time, to an era where ethnic artists had to blend in; is our world headed for more of the same?