Throughout history, the creative energy of playwrights has generated works of performing arts that have exposed the public to new worlds; challenged their old assumptions; and even incited them to action. Few plays have been as successful or stormed the intellectual world like Sholem Asch’s 1906 Yiddish-language drama “God of Vengeance” (“Got fun Nekome”). Even by today’s standards, the premise would be considered offensive, or at least controversial, by many. But this play was also one of the most successful of its time, translated into many languages and performed throughout the theatrical world. The Bay Area’s Yiddish Theatre Ensemble (YTE) has mounted a Zoom presentation of this important work that deserves attention.
Born and raised in a Hasidic Jewish family in Poland, the peripatetic Asch would become a naturalized American citizen, but symbolic of numerous Jewish theater companies, he traveled and wandered. He may have been escaping the criticism that hounded him despite his becoming one of the lions of Yiddish literature. Y.L. Peretz, a leader in that movement and mentor to Asch, simply said of “God of Vengeance,” “Burn it, Asch, burn it.”
YTE has used an English adaptation by the Irish-born Caraid O’Brien, an unlikely name for a Yiddish translator. The setting shifts from a turn-of-the-century Polish shtetl to Depression-era New York City. The central plot line concerns a pious, observant Jewish father, Yankl, who wishes to marry his daughter off to a Yeshiva student. One hitch – the basement of his tenement row house is a brothel. Yankl is a pimp! Oh – and his daughter Rivkeleh is in love with one of the girls downstairs. Hardly material for television’s “The Love Boat.”
Despite the origins of the play, far from the American experience of the 21st century, many of the universal thematic situations from “God of Vengeance” resonate. While daughter Rivkeleh comes from a caring family that wants only the best for her (or what they think is the best for her), she rebels. Decades before the sexual revolution, she is drawn to another woman. Yankl represents the contradictions that most humans possess. His piety is inconsistent with his profession and his religiousness seems hypocritical. A man of faith, he pleads for intervention from God to resolve his dilemma with Rivkeleh, but if there is a God, why should God care about him? His wife, Soreh, is earnest and loving and will do anything necessary to ensure Rivkeleh’s safety when she goes missing. If we weren’t told, it would be hard to believe that Soreh was a prostitute. Her redemption from that way of life seems so complete.
The play operates well in terms of storytelling, but the action is sometimes slow until the third act. Characters are varied and have dimensionality. Despite working in the underbelly of society, we meet people who have the same dreams as we do. And like many others in society who distinguish between their professions and their lives, the prostitutes do as well.
On an isolated basis, most performances are high quality, especially the leads. Roni Alperin summons the dour, temperamental, conflicted Yankl. Elena Faverio as Rivkeleh begins as a bright, bubbly maiden, but matures before our very eyes. And Jill Eickmann captures the earnest devotion of a loving mother as Soreh, but reveals darker instincts when the situation calls for it. Unlike most Zoom actors, she wisely shifts her visual focus away from the camera often to create a more realistic portrayal than many talking heads do.
Director Bruce Bierman marshals resources well and with good result under the circumstances. The “look” works, with period costumes and rough, graphic scenery. But the backdrops are colorful and varied and even include different frames for the windows. However, like any director of a Zoom production, Bierman faces constraints that are bound to limit viewer satisfaction.
The windowed format of Zoom cannot produce the immediacy or interaction of characters to yield the dramatic tension of a live or realistically filmed performance. The inability to rehearse in one place is another obstacle. Because visual flow is inherently jumpy in Zoom, so is the narrative, and the more characters there are, the clunkier it seems. This play has the disadvantage of having around a dozen roles. Perhaps the only advantage of Zoom productions is that it does allow the involvement of actors from far remote locations, as is this case with this one.
A final issue of interest in this production concerns dialogue-driven sound. During a several minute scene between Rivkeleh and her lesbian lover Mankeh, they speak Yiddish, and happily, subtitles are used. However, throughout the performance, Yiddish words and phrases are used that are not given translations through subtitles. These usages are realistic, but non-Jewish audience members may find these words harder to hear and understand. So how to treat with this issue largely depends on what audience the producer hopes to reach.
Despite whatever shortcomings caused by the pandemic, many aspects of this production are appealing given the circumstance. While not for everyone, this is a significant play that retains an important place in theatrical history. It is also a draw for those who are interested Jewish culture of the period.
“God of Vengeance” (“Got fun Nekome”) by Sholem Asch as translated by Caraid O’Brien is produced by Yiddish Theatre Ensemble and streams on Vimeo through March 23, 2021.
Victor Cordell, Ph.D.
American Theatre Critics Association
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle