A Passover Post! Target Margin’s “The (*) Inn”
Yiddish Theatre is one of the many theatrical cul-de-sacs I’ve found myself investigating as an inevitable by-product of my exploration of vaudeville. But even I, who know far more about it than the Average Joe, know far less about it than actual experts, and thus am still liable to be on the receiving end of pleasant surprises from time to time.
Oddly, for some reason, though Yiddish was very much a living, breathing language a century ago, my mental construct of it has always been closer to closed tongues like ancient Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Sanskrit. Yes, I knew that Yiddish theatre thrived in the early 20th century, but I really only considered that it would take the form of 2 or 3 obvious types (mostly because those were the types that I had encountered) : 1) traditional material, derived from folk tales, religious stories etc; 2) vaudeville entertainment; or 3) realism, of the sort that would come to feed into the Group Theatre (the Adlers, etc).
But something is missing from this picture, something really obvious when you consider where the rest of the art world was in the early 20th century. That something is the experimental, or as I like to call it in this context, the experimentl. Target Margin‘s David Herskovits clued me in on this aspect a few months ago, when we did a podcast conversation for nytheatre.com when the company launched their two year Beyond the Pale project. You can hear my palpable interest in what he had to say here.
In that discussion, and his marketing and program materials for The (*) Inn, Herskovits uses words like “experimental” and “modernist” to describe the play, but I was delighted when I saw the show and realized that what was on view was something for which I had some knowledge and some context (which is more than can be said about most of the reviewers I’ve read who’ve seen the show.)
Perets Hirschbein wrote Di puste kretshme in 1913; the title translates roughly as “The [Deserted, Empty, Haunted] Inn“, the modifier of which Herskovits has chosen to render as a goose egg. The titular property stands across a farmer’s field to rebuke and bedevil its owners, a rural family whose efforts to marry off a young daughter (Rachel Claire) to a local neighbor (Susan Hyon) are harried by a vaguely Mephistophelean, horse-thieving uncle (Ugo Chukwu). The family’s ordeal over the course of the evening is a devastating one, yet we quickly sense that it takes place on a plane more symbolic than literal.
What clicked for me right from the top of the show was that its tone and its form made a great deal of sense given where the playwright was from, and when the play was written. Europe in the early twentieth century was the hotbed of Expressionism. Oskar Kokoschka, Georg Kaiser, Ernst Toller, and Reinhard Sorge were all writing works in German not far different from Hirschbein’s around the same time, with recent roots going back to Strindberg, Wedekind, and Maeterlinck (in fact, Hirschbein was known as “the Yiddish Maeterlink.”) This play is so similar to the work of these other writers that if I were to do a book on Expressionism, I’d now include a Yiddish chapter and talk about Hirschbein.
I’ve made the mistake of looking to see what other critics have written about the show, and as is sadly the case most of the time these days, 95% of them seem to have no idea what they are talking about (and worse, seem to have made no effort to even do a little homework). The vast majority take the tone of “How marvelous that some Yiddish theatre is being done!” and leave it at that. (Yiddish theatre is being done in New York all the time. So that’s not the lede here.) Some of the response acknowledges the experimental nature of the show but clearly has no historical frame of reference, clumsily describing things Herskovits has done with lighting, sets, props, make-up and playing styles with no apparent awareness that he is honoring an entire stylistic school of theatre that flourished not just in Europe but in the United States for years if not decades (O’Neill? Williams? Ever hear of them?). The one reviewer I saw that got even close to the correct way to talk about the show was still somewhat pathetically not up to the task. A self-described “Ph.D. candidate” reviewing the show for Huffington Post unwittingly revealed a grasp of theatre history so scanty and faint that her only touchstones for Expressionism were the 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Brecht’s V-effect, both of which are outcomes of the Expressionist movement in theatre rather than examples of it. And embarrassingly superficial ones at that, rather like discussing Romantic music in terms of the only piece you’ve ever heard, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
But enough about the universal ineptitude of my colleagues; it’s nothing new and the situation is only going to grow worse.
Expressionism, like the Romanticism it sprang out of, is a modernism that (ironically) draws heavily on the past. But unlike classicism it is not the past of the academy, a return to time-sanctioned forms. Rather, it tends to draw from folkish sources, popular tales and the like. It’s a Gothic sensibility; rooted in the irrational, the superstitious, the poetic, the subconscious. Haunted-seeming, decrepit buildings are a hallmark of the Gothic literature that spawned Expressionism. Rituals, dreams, nightmares.
The beginning beats of The (*) Inn seem familiarly like the tales of Sholem Aleichem — but then things begin to get very strange indeed. Call it Fiddler on the Roofies. We note, for example, from the get-go that David Greenspan as the old grandfather has very pronounced black circles around his eyes. His characterization is broad (as one expects from this larger than life personality) but it is perhaps one notch broader than it otherwise might be. Hirschbein’s characters, especially the daughter Mehta, frequently waffle and contradict themselves, their natures seemingly changeable and open-ended. Events themselves are frequently bewildering. In later scenes, Herskovits switches up the playing styles all kinds of ways. In one section, speaking characters don’t move their mouths at all; their voices come from an offstage recording. In another they go at their lines in a manner totally affectless, with complete emotional detachment. In some scenes we have gorgeous painted two dimensional scenery; in others, the bare brick of the backstage. For parts of the play we are dealing with old fashioned proscenium staging. In other parts, Herskovits and lighting designer Lenore Doxsee sculpt in shadow and light. The affect is one of fragmentation and disintegration, culminating in ritual annihilation. And one walks out feeling like one has gone through an experience. Like a vivid but confusing dream, it sticks in your craw and lingers memorably, nagging precisely because it’s not reducible to the Explained or the Explainable. That is the very definition of what it means to be “haunted”.