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World premiere of a Jewish “Danse Macabre” based on I.L. Peretz’s Yiddish play Bei Nakht Oyfn Altn Mark
By Henrik Eger

The folk opera A Night in the Old Marketplace had its world premiere at Philadelphia’s Prince Music Theater. Based on Isaac Leib Peretz’s Bei Nakht Oyfn Altn Mark, the play presents poetic images in a dream-like atmosphere where a multitude of different characters appear onstage.

According to Glen Berger, who wrote the book and lyrics for Marketplace, “Peretz’s original play is filled to brimming with moving, startling poetry, but is lacking in anything that could be called ‘plot’.” Not wanting to lose the poetry of the play, he and composer Frank London and director Alexandra Aron (who conceptualized the project), “married it to music, with many of Peretz’s original lines either directly incorporated into song or inspiring the songs.”

Berger’s editing of Peretz’s language allowed for one unusual statement after another, for example, “he will drown in a spoonful of water,” turning the old marketplace into a landscape of hell, and stripping the original Yiddish text down to its essence while trying to translate old joys and fears into our own hopeful, though angst-ridden times.

The creative team—Aron, Berger, and London—tried to stay true to the absurdist view of Jewish life that Peretz had presented, while at the same time incorporating it into a modern medium where Eastern European klezmer music blends with American jazz.

Peretz presented an almost Gordian Knot for the New York-based theatre artists who recognized that to make this old play come alive again, they had to cut through the many hundreds of figures, apparitions, and even animals that appeared in Peretz’s original Yiddish manuscript.

The resulting work, part musical, part folk opera, looked and felt like a Vaudevillian mosaic, created out of the “seemingly unproduceable vision in verse,” which brought to the stage what Aron calls “a fevered dreamscape” that showed the “contradictory impulses toward Jewish culture” in a writer “whose heart was devoted to the religious world of the shtetl, despite all of its seemingly backward mores.” To create some kind of coherence, the team foregrounded three protagonists: the Recluse, the passed-over bridegroom Nosn, and the wedding jester Badkhn, who planned rebellion in Russian-dominated Poland—ten years before the October Revolution of 1917—raising his fist against "God or whoever is running this universe."

The plot centers on the transformation of a wealthy, ugly old man (Guil Fisher) who marries a beautiful young woman (Deborah Grausman) who pines for a handsome young fellow (the lively Steven Rattazzi), but for economic reasons gets forced to put her family over her feelings. After she commits suicide by drowning in a well at the marketplace of the little shtetl, the old husband turns into a recluse, making him act like the half brother of Moses in a mental desert and the blinded King Lear in a Polish shtetl.

The mad Badkhn (the stunning Ray Wills) adds to the play’s coherence. His extraordinary wide-range presented a kind of visual vox populi, with as many facial expressions as characters in the original Peretz play, and a voice so alluring that he even managed to get the audience to sing along.

With these eccentric characters, plus a very tall, attractive young woman Gargoyle (the beautifully voiced Charlotte Cohn), made to look like a pre-op transvestite with platform-heeled boots racing, almost flying, across the stage, and playing tricks on the main characters, some theatre-goers may misread this musical as a campy Halloween entertainment.

However, the Gargoyle acted as one of the prime movers in bringing out the multi-layered character of this play where past, present, and future come together as frighteningly as in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but without Dickens’ neat and logical plot. Rather, the viewers are drawn into a wild, medieval, Jewish Totentanz—a modern Danse Macabre—uniting everyone, the living and the dead alike.

Tine Kindermann and Mor Erlich’s brilliant stop motion animations flashed onto a backdrop above a cemetery (designed by Lauren Helpern), making old woodcuts come alive, and enhancing the eerie nature of a production in which a headless (Melinda Blake) and a tongueless (Mathew Burrow) character added to the surreal, dream-like, nightmarish atmosphere.

Tyler Micoleau’s lighting ran a red beam across the stage like curdled blood when the dead were being called from the grave, all supported by Nick Kourtides’ electrifying sound design. The costumes by Levi Okunov, the 22-year old Hasidic wunderkind fashion designer from New York City, might have stunned on a catwalk in Paris, but here they varied between illuminating the dream-like quality of the play and giving design historians a reason to cringe.

Lauren Helpern’s scenic design seemed plain in contrast to the rich subject matter this play explored, although when the gates to the cemetery opened, the stage came alive, as it did beautifully when a white chuppah flowed from above like a blessing with the young couple walking right underneath it. Recent Barrymore winner Karen Getz’s choreography tried to blend traditional Jewish dances with modern elements, but only managed to create embarrassing, awkward movements, particularly when the four Yashiva students—two “Yashiva boys” and two bearded “Yahiva girls” dressed like men with stuck on beards—were prancing across the stage.

To appreciate this unusual musical, one has to accept melodrama as part of the dream-like convention that was popular in 19th C. drama, with young women dying and spirits bringing them back to the stage. To understand this play, one has to see the wider picture, namely, the attempt to create a whole new vision of life, however fantastic, and I admire the Prince Music Theater for their courage to once again open their season with an ambitious new work.

In a way, experiencing A Night in the Old Marketplace feels like seeing Dadaism having reached a Polish shtetl. This musical unearthed a wide-range of human experiences, including doubting God, conflicted feelings about “the revolution,” a belief in the supernatural, and a chance for redemption that Job, the torn soul in the most difficult part of the Bible, experienced, except that the Jobs in this play are down-to-earth, small-village folks who rise and fall with their feelings and experiences for the entire uninterrupted 90 minutes of the play.

The scene with the smashed wedding glass presents perhaps one of the most symbolic parts of the play. Nosn, once a hopeful young bridegroom who got deprived of his bride, now an aging bachelor, permanently carries around a red bag with the wedding shards of his rival—a daily reminder of his defeat and his guilty memory of his part in the premature death of his bride. However, at the end, in the wedding with the dead, the Badkhn transforms those splinters and shards of the past into a new glass and holds it up for all to see: a moment where hope wins over guilt and even death.

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A Night in the Old Marketplace

at Philadelphia’s Prince Music Theater
September 28 - October 21 2007
Book and Lyrics by Glen Berger
Music by Frank London
Conceived by Alexandra Aron
Inspired by I.L. Peretz