Musical Gender Bending, a Romp, and Teaching Girls to Read

“Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe who has not created me a woman.” – from the requisite daily prayers for Orthodox Jewish men

Our hero, Yentl, was born to a religious scholar father in early 20th century Poland who believed and recited these old Hebrew words faithfully. Of course to this day the Orthodox of all faiths – we often say fundamentalists – continue to reject modern, secular values of gender equality, and even among progressive brands of faith in many cases equality is more an ideal than the norm, just as it remains in society at large.

The subject matter of this production – an 18 year old orphan girl desperate to become, against proscribed societal and religious gender roles, a Talmudic scholar – couldn’t be nearer to my personal journey – the inability of women to attain the highest office in their respective lands of faith was one of the most significant reasons I lost my own. Of course I grew up with plenty of girls smarter than me and never, even as a believer, had a shred of doubt as to their fitness to do anything in the world. “Because God said so” has never been good enough for me, in any context.

Unlike me, however, the Yentl of the play never loses her faith. Near the end of the play and upon revealing her true gender identity to the object of her true love, the young man asks whether or not she is an apostate. The 19 year old Yentl, standing there in her half-off rabbinical scholar garb, in serious emotional pain, replies, “I believe.”

Most are likely familiar with Streisand’s Yentl from the 1980s, and this musical is indeed an adaptation of the same story, written by Isaac Bashevis Singer in the early 1960s. The program notes, by Alisa Solomon, note an interesting societal corollary to the film – “That [Streisand] couldn’t find any backers [for the film] was at least as much a function of her youth and gender as of the story’s origin and subject. Who did she think she was, trying to barge into Hollywood as producer, director, and star?” It wasn’t until the singularly talented Babs was 40 that she made the movie happen, after years of trying.

The production of Yentl at the Washington D. C. Jewish Community Center last night was delightful. Singer’s story was updated with a new, original musical and lyrical score by Jill Sobule. Song titles such as “I Hate Girl Things,” and “Oh Shit, Oh Damn,” reveal that the theme of gender equality, not necessarily the foremost theme on Singer’s mind, has become the central theme of the work for modern audiences. The irreverent juxtaposition of such songs with the play’s traditional Talmudic library backdrop is jarring at times, but the overall mood of the play is lighthearted and comedic, an interesting juxtaposition as well, considering the subject matter. Few like their theatre to be too painful!

Though the songs themselves lack cohesion – stylistically they range from quintessential Bob Fosse to Joan Baez strumming her guitar – they well highlight the talent of the crew, a cast that does it all – acting, singing, and instrumentals. The multi-talented ensemble sets the musical stage with percussion, an accordion, a viola, two guitars, a clarinet, and an ever-present cello. The show revels in the unincorporated musical genre – as the actors finish a line their instruments almost magically find their way into the players’ hands and they strike up a song. It really works – the fourth wall is occasionally breached as actors stroll, conversing and playing their instruments, down the aisles of the auditorium.

It was such a treat to see an original work in this unique institution – The D.C. Jewish Community Center is a vibrant place in Dupont Circle that hosts an array of programming and services. The theatrical venue is nice – there is not a bad seat in the intimate house. Apparently there is even some sort of fitness club in the building, though we did not see it. Unsurprisingly, in this cultural moment, there is a visible layer of security at work, though not uniformed and not at all intrusive.

We had a wonderful time – the artistic director took to the stage at the beginning of the play to discuss the upcoming season – Yentl is the season’s first. I regret that we will be unable to see any of the remaining productions, including a new work by Tony Kushner, this year’s artist in residence.

If you’re in the area, check out what the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center is up to – the older, well-heeled crowd is very friendly, and the production will be a treat.

Thanks for reading.

Ryan

PS: This is my 200th post on Musical Me; thank you for your continued support!

2 comments

  1. Congrats on 200!!

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