I (a non-Jew) often attend Jewish theater, and God of Vengeance is the second full Yiddish production I have attended. (The first being Folksbiene’s production of the musical The Golden Bride.) Looking back at my experience last night, I can honestly say I don’t even remember reading the subtitles at all and was completely captivated by the story and performances.
Yankl (Shane Baker) owns a brothel and lives upstairs from it with his wife, Soreh (played by the director, Eleanor Reissa) and seemingly innocent daughter, Rivkele (Shayna Schmidt.) Yankl and Soreh are desperate to keep Rivkele pure (which is clearly a challenge since she is growing-up in the same building as a brothel) to marry a good Jewish man, although Rivkele is drawn to one of the prostitutes in the cellar, Manke (Melissa Weisz). I particularly enjoyed Rachel Botchan and Mira Kessler as Reizl and Basha, two of Yankl’s other workers, and Luzer Twersky is excellent as a seedy pimp.
The set and costumes by Vicki R. Davis are indeterminate, sometimes giving the impression that we are watching the original production of the play, but then Rivkele came out in leggings, and it might as well have been modern day. This was a brilliant choice, reminding us that the story’s themes of sin, forgiveness, and religion are timeless. While there were a few moments that seemed to bring inappropriate laughter from the audience, this was no fault of the cast.
It is very important to walk into this production with some knowledge of the history of the play, which, in 1923, was considered so obscene that its cast members were arrested.
I will be going back to New Yiddish Rep in the future and seeing God of Vengeance certainly has made me look forward to seeing the Broadway premiere of Indecent, which explores the backstory of the play.
God of Vengeance
Written by Sholem Asch
Directed by Eleanor Reissa
Playing thru January 22nd