Kadimah Yiddish Theatre Company: Yentl – Theatre Review

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In a small village in Poland 1904, a young Ashkenazi Jewish woman named Yentl (Amy Hack) feels very different. She finds herself much more comfortable dressing and acting in male identifying ways, bucking devout beliefs of her religious community. She also wishes to study Talmudic Law but the scripture itself forbids women from doing so.

Yentl‘s loving father however encourages his child and teaches her the Torah in secret. When her father passes away, Yentl refuses to simply be married off into a life she has never wanted. She cuts her hair short, takes on the identity of a man named “Anshel” and flees to another city. Here she can continue her studies at a Yeshiva (a religious Jewish school), during which she meets a man named Avigdor (Nicholas Jaquinot). Avigdor is young and while his thirst for spiritual knowledge rivals Yentl‘s, his desire for women is always at the forefront of his mind.

The two become best of friends but Yentl remains under the guise of “Anshel“. She learns about Avigdor‘s cancelled engagement to Hodes (Genevieve Kingsford), the beautiful daughter of the richest man in town. As Yentl continues her studies and relationships, her gender-bending ruse becomes harder and harder to conceal. It may only be a matter of time before her secret gets out but how many people will be hurt in the process?

I think it’s understandable that many people’s only experience with ‘Yentl‘ would be Barbara Streisand’s award winning 1983 romantic musical. But for this play, writers Gary Abrahams, Elise Esther Hearst and Galit Klas drew inspiration from Isaac Bashevis Singer‘s original Yiddish short story ‘Yentl the Yeshiva Boy‘. A tale of emancipation, gender identity and spirituality, ‘Yentl‘ feels incredibly relevant today and presents the story in a new and fascinating way.

Produced by Kadimah Yiddish Theatre, Yentl takes the story of a young woman seeking knowledge drawing parallels to that of Adam & Eve. Examining the stories in the Torah, how they reflect society and how our own desires have long lasting ramifications for those around us. As the play puts it: a lie is like an abscess, it grows bigger and bigger until it inevitably bursts.

As Yentl goes through her own awakening, as do the play’s other primary characters, Avigdor in his youthful confusion finds himself becoming attracted to “Anshel“, while Hodes reflects the femininity Yentl finds alien. A strong woman who wants a man to compliment her as a person yet is more interested in building a family than reading the Torah.

The three parts of this love triangle are portrayed brilliantly by the cast. Kingsford is adorable as this woman torn between her love of Avigdor and Anshel. Jaquinot is full of life and magnetic in his charisma. While Hack (taking over from Jana Zvedeniuk from the play’s 2022 season) gives an incredibly moving and heartfelt portrayal as this woman who simply wishes to learn, be herself and to make peace with those around her.

Joining them all together is the ‘Yeytser Ho’re’, a Jewish spiritual concept of one’s rebellious or “evil” inclinations. Morally ambiguous, this figure is portrayed in the play by actress Evelyn Krape. We’re introduced to her as the narrator and throughout most of the show she has an active part in the story. 

At times, she’s an old crone breaking the fourth wall and cackling at the irony of Yentl‘s situations. She portrays ancillary characters (Yentl‘s papa, Hodes‘ mother etc) but also works to voice internalised struggle of the main trio. Their desires, their anger or just their need to break free from the rules laid out for them. As a narrative tool, this character works brilliantly and adds to the gloomy gothic feel of the play while at the same time, injecting moments of black humour to cut the tension.

This atmosphere in which the play is presented completely won me over. I wasn’t sure how the subject material would be handled but nearly half of the dialogue is presented in Yiddish with projected subtitles, allowing for a more poetic yet natural telling of the story. Dan Barber‘s magnificent set and costume design adds to the oppressive ambience, as does the sound design by Russell Goldsmith and dreamlike lighting by Rachel Burke.

It was a brave undertaking bringing Yentl to audiences for the first time in nearly 40 years yet Kadimah Yiddish Theatre Company have managed to do so in such a fresh and original way. This is to say nothing of how surprisingly palatable the story is for modern audiences. With the underlying LGBT+ themes being examined more thoroughly here than in Streisand’s film, or even the English translation of I.B Singer’s short story, complete with its talented and brave cast, Yentl is without doubt one of the most thought provoking stage productions Melbourne has seen in years.

For more information and ticketing on Yentl currently playing at Malthouse Theatre, please visit:
https://www.malthousetheatre.com.au/what-s-on/malthouse-theatre/yentl

Photography by Jeff Busby.

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