Arts & Culture

Nocturnal Ghosts in the Old Marketplace

Klezmer, theatre, animation, the undead! Read More

By / May 5, 2017

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As the sun sets in an old marketplace in an unnamed Eastern European shtetl, a young man drinks by himself in a tavern, an old recluse studies holy texts in a cave, a wedding jester plots a revolution against God, and a young bride lies dead at the bottom of a well. She is Sheindl, the young man is her beloved Noson, a wise talmudic student, the recluse is Itzik, a wealthy man that Sheindl was married to against her will, and the jester is the badkhn from Sheindl’s wedding, whose crass jokes led to her untimely suicide.

Thus begins Alexandra Aron’s adaptation of I. L. Peretz’s classic Yiddish play, A Night in the Old Marketplace. In Aron’s version, the play, recently expanded and co-presented by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, has become a multimedia klezmer opera, featuring five singers, animation, narration, and a four-piece band. Aron has assembled a first rate ensemble of musicians and vocalists, including Klezmatics vocalist Lorin Sklamberg as Noson, Aaron Alexander of the Klezmer Brass Allstars, and Rob Curto of the Brazilian band Forró in the Dark.

The work combines both macabre humor and lofty ideas, weaving together such disparate themes as faith, mysticism, reflections on love and death, and an extended meditation on the Book of Job. The breaking of a wedding glass is compared to the shattering of the primordial vessels in the kabbalistic act of creation, the jester seduces a gargoyle, wrestles a tin rooster, and raises an army of the undead, and Noson weds Sheindl from beyond the grave. All throughout, nocturnal spirits swirl in the marketplace, such as the Singers of Brod, an itinerant family of Jewish musicians who died several years before in a plague.

The songs, composed by the Klezmatics trumpeter Frank London with words by Glen Berger, effectively recreate Yiddish folk melodies using English lyrics. The band, which consists of Alexander on drums, Curto on accordion and piano, Brandon Seabrook on electric guitar and Ron Caswell on tuba, provide able backing to the vocalists, occasionally venturing the terrains of rock and jazz but mostly remain within a klezmer vein. The vocalists are all capable performers, but with the exception of Manu Narayan, offer little in the way of physical dynamism to complement their voices. Edgar Oliver contributes tongue in cheek narration throughout, anchoring the convoluted opera in a way that makes it more readily comprehensible.

Perhaps one of the greatest pleasures of the work consists in the video-projection, animation that references both Marc Chagall and Monty Python, evoking the mythological shtetl with equal part irony and nostalgia. Housewives and ritual slaughterers cavort amongst typical wooden houses, while Jewish socialists and Cossacks face off in a headless dance. The overall effect is one of both homage and irreverence, offering a loving portrait of the lost world of Ashkenaz that succeeds in being equally timeless and contemporary.

Like the wedding jester, Aron and her ensemble bring back the ghosts of the Yiddish theatre and of Jewish shtetl life, allowing them to frolic in the old marketplace for one more night, reliving their past loves and losses and the world from which they came.

A Night in the Old Marketplace plays on Saturday, May 6 at 9:30pm at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park.

Michael Rom is from Vancouver, Canada, and is currently completing a PhD in Brazilian history.