Here is an English translation of Boris Sandler’s review of our new pop-up Yiddish boutique theater:
This past November, I was invited to the debut of a brand new theater in the New York Yiddish world. It is called Der Royter Kuter–The Red Tomcat, an undertaking of the Congress for Jewish Culture.
A new Yiddish theater is of course yet another way to connect directly with the Yiddish audience. So what’s not to be happy! But what is it that the little red tomcat wishes to say with its “Meow?”
For its premiere, the theater chose two separate stories by Avrom Sutzkever: Lupus and Where the Stars Spend the Night. The choice of these two literary works was compelling and at the same time raised some doubts: compelling––the concept of presenting works not conceived for the theater, and for the very same reason it raised those doubts.
So interest and curiosity for this theatrical innovation drove me out of my home on a cold, rainy evening to journey into Manhattan. I had already read the two stories, sent to me electronically in both the original Yiddish and in English translation. That same “packet” had been sent to each attendee at the premiere, in total 10 people.
The Red Tomcat occupied a small apartment, with the performance taking place in the front room. The intimate salon atmosphere, the walls on which were hanging works by Yonia Fain (incidentally, along with the texts we also received illustrations to the two stories drawn by Yonia Fain, raised in Sutzkever’s Vilna and a close friend of the writer), and one corner into which had been shoved a chair and a small table with a kerosene lamp, a pipe, and a manuscript––the show’s entire entourage; awakening even before the performance began an almost mystic mood to introduce Sutzkever’s surrealist tale Lupus.
The production’s director, Moshe Yassur, is well acquainted with the art of the theatrical hint and how to say much with the barest artistic means, as he has shown in his recent Yiddish stagings of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and Miller’s Death of a Salesman. When the main character of Lupus (Shane Baker) lights the kerosene lantern and a broken, bifurcated shadow spreads out over the walls of the corner, you immediately understand that the location of the “stage” has been chosen with precision.
Baker, as a Yiddish actor, finds himself presently in full bloom, with regular appearances across America as well as for Jewish communities throughout the world. He likes to experiment. And, most importantly, he is faithful to the Yiddish word and to the theatrical tradition.
The dialogue between the author and the shadow named Lupus occurs “between earth and heaven, when it has grown so still that you can hear the breathing of the corpses…” The poet’s vision is riven, because he exists in two worlds––the world of yesterday’s shadows and a present as ephemeral as the “dancer of smoke” who winds her way up out of his pipe.
“Lupus” in Latin means wolf. Growing up, his parents called our hero Velvl, but later, among the Gentiles, he became “Lupus.” And when the Nazis arrived, he went into business selling the dearest merchandise of all, inherited from his father the apothecary: cyanide, with which he “rescues Jews from life.” “But Lupus doesn’t give his merchandise away for nothing. There is a price and the price grows ever higher. And the less cyanide he has, the more precious stones he demands…”
Not an easy piece of “merchandise” for the director and the actor to present. To tell the truth, while reading the story Lupus, I found it somewhat confusing. But during the performance, I gave myself over completely to the artists–Yassur and Baker. They guided me through the intricate paths of Sutzkever’s poetic prose, which is bursting with wild metaphors and allusions.
The second act presents the second Sutzkever tale, Dortn vu es nekhtikn di shtern (Where the Stars Spend the Night). Seemingly two separate tales, and yet they are internally bound. The knot is the Holocaust, the Great Destruction which never ends. It awakens memories and interrupts the continuity of the present with mirage-like figures from the life cut short.
SHE, in contrast to Lupus, enters the present like a ghost in a wedding gown, or maybe an angel… and again, as in Lupus, there is a dialogue, now between the poet and the young woman named Lili (Miryem-Khaye Seigel); a dialogue woven of silence, because souls that are in love do not speak with words, just as eternity needs no measurements of time…
We salute the new theater Der Royter Kuter on its successful beginning. The New York Yiddish world has been in need of a literary word spoken with quiet conviction. Fortunately, Yiddish literature is lately being brought out of the ritual vault of the libraries, and there is active digitization of our literature, making it much easier to get hold of without even leaving one’s house. But theater remains a living thread to bind souls together in conversation via the spoken word.
The Red Tomcat finds itself in good hands and on a proper path. Let’s wish it generous supporters and good friends.
––Boris Sandler, YiddishBranzhe 1 December 2019