'Yentl' gets a new twist in Asolo Rep production
Director Gordon Greenberg admits that most people who are familiar with the story of “Yentl” know it primarily from the 1983 movie that starred Barbra Streisand.
He wants you to forget about that movie and the songs. There will be no “Papa Can You Hear Me” or shots of Yentl riding on a ship past the Statue of Liberty in the stage version he is putting together for the Asolo Repertory Theatre. Gordon has become something of a specialist in fixing or reviving shows that have become overlooked over the years, like “Working, the Musical,” which he previously staged at Asolo Rep. This time, he’s hoping to give new life to the play of “Yentl,” a stage version of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy.” The play by Leah Napolin and Singer opened on Broadway in 1975 and ran for 223 performances with Tovah Feldshuh earning a Tony nomination in the title role.
“It rarely gets done now and I think that’s a shame,” Greenberg said. “It’s really a wonderful story.”
But it has been overshadowed by the film that Streisand also directed about a young Jewish woman named Yentl, who disguises herself as a boy named Anshel after her father’s death so that she can study the Torah in Poland in the 1870s. She also gets caught up in a romantic triangle involving a young man and classmate named Avigdor and the girl he plans to marry, Hadass. Greenberg said that despite the set time period, the production has a timeless style “because the story really applies to anytime when people are prohibited from their freedoms or education.”
Greenberg said the idea for the production came after he read a story that New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote in Vanity Fair about Saudi Arabia’s effort to attract tourists and the problems women face there.
“This still exists all over the world — women as second-class citizens,” Greenberg said. “We thought that was fascinating.” To emphasize the universality and timelessness of the story, Greenberg recruited composer and musician Jill Sobule to write a score for the ensemble members who will play instruments and function as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting through music on the story.
Sobule, who is probably most widely known for the songs “I Kissed a Girl” and “Supermodel” from the 1995 film “Clueless,” has crafted a score conceived in part for the third-year FSU/Asolo Conservatory students who help make up the band/ensemble. She worked with them over a weekend in December to see what instruments they can play and their skill levels. She describes the music as a sort of Klezmer punk, that has the feel of an Old World community mixed with something new. Greenberg said the film tells the “same story as the movie, but the movie softened the edges, edited out some of the saltier moments.” Or, as Sobule added with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes, “They kind of de-sexed it.”
It’s also funnier than what was on screen, Greenberg said.
“The big surprise is how funny it is, and how sexy it is and all the tension and juiciness there,” he said.
Hillary Clemens, who is also playing May in “Once in a Lifetime,” gets to portray another strong-minded woman in the title role of “Yentl.”
She describes the costume design by Mattie Ullrich and the sets by Brian Sidney Bembridge as creating a sense of “almost a hipster Williamsburg. It’s cool. It makes it a really timeless story.”
And it highlights specific gender roles that still become social and political issues around the world.
“There are different limitations for all sorts of different people and that makes this relatable to everybody,” she said.
Clemens has played women who masqueraded as men in the past, in such roles as Viola in “Twelfth Night” and Rosalind in “As You Like It.”
“It’s exceptionally freeing,” she said. “Yentl could very well live as a woman, but she decides to live as a man to pursue her passion for learning. She can sit and read a book while she waits for a train. She can argue about Talmudic law, do all the things she wants out in the open and be celebrated and praised for it.” But the gender-bending causes problems for those Yentl/Anshel cares about most, particularly Avigdor, who is not sure how to react to his feelings for his friend. “It’s a very brotherly, best friend relationship, but there’s also an underlying attraction and tension there,” said actor Andrew Carter. “For Avigdor, it’s as confusing as anything he’s ever experienced.”
Carter, who also plays Clemens’ love interest in “Once in a Lifetime,” stars opposite Gisela Chipe as Hadass, a woman who has been raised to be married, take care of a home and raise a family.
“She takes pride on how well she does that; that’s just not for Yentl,” said Chipe, who, like the other leads, makes her Asolo Rep debut this season.
In one scene, Anshel “tries to teach Hadass something about Talmudic law, but it’s just not part of her vocabulary or interest,” Chipe said. “You see that Yentl has made choices that are not normally in her scope of being a woman, but because she’s chosen to live her life as a man, she’s open to more things that she’s interested in.”
No matter how the stage and actors may look, Carter said “Yentl” is not “a period piece. It’s very accessible. We’re making it as immediate as possible.”