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A CurtainUp Review
God of Vengeance

No, I don't want my home mixing with downstairs. Keep them separate from each other! Like kosher and treyf!—Yankl
(left to right)Eleanor Reissa as Sarah and Shayna Schmidt as Rifkele (Photo: Ronald Glassman)
In medieval times nobles who were not sure of their fate after death would try to settle the score with God by building huge and elaborate cathedrals. The Jewish version of this kind of atonement, according to playwright Sholem Asch, is sponsoring the inscription of a new Torah. Thus Yankl (Shane Baker, who also provided super title translation and design), the protagonist in God of Vengeance, working through Reb Eli (David Mandelbaum), hires a pious scribe (Eli Rosen) to carry out the task, in order to atone for the sin of having a brothel in his basement.

But Yankl, a good Jewish father, is not thinking only of himself. He plans to give this Torah to his future son-in-law to make sure his innocent daughter, Rivkele (Shayna Schmidt), gets a good husband. His wife, Soreh (Eleanor Reissa), herself a former prostitute, is completely in favor of the arrangement, only she hopes for the added benefit of becoming respectable in the eyes of the community.

As the play's title indicates, Yankl's plan does not succeed —partly because some of his employees have concocted a scheme to turn Rivkele into a prostitute at their new establishment, but mostly because God (unlike people) cannot be bought. In the end, Rivkele becomes just as much a victim of her father's business as the women who work for him and the society that supports or ignores his corrupt ways.

The plot to turn Rivkele into a prostitute is facilitated by the teenager's crush on Manke (Melissa Weisz) wwho lives and works in the basement and lures the innocent young woman into the clutches of the pimp, Shloyme (Luzer Twersky). Hindl (Caraid O'Brien) the prostitute to whom Shloyme is betrothed is hoping to follow the path of Yankl's wife and quit the business while her husband manages it.

Reissa, who also directs, has made marvelous use of the Ellen Stewart Theatre's small stage to reproduce the narrow world of European orthodox Jewry. The intrusion of the outside world is heralded by percussionist Billy Martin's original score.

Acts I and II are set in Yankl and Soreh's very conventional apartment. Act II takes place in the basement brothel. The contrast between the two domains is flattering to neither those who live above or below.

If Reissa is convincing as the practical and mostly amoral Soreh, Baker shines as the conflicted Yankl. This suits the play perfectly. Soreh is contemptible, but Yankl is tragic. He suffers the ultimate misfortune, the knowledge that he has been judged by God and found guilty.

Curiously, among the supporting characters, Schmidt and Weisz are the least convincing. This may be because the production tries too hard to give Rivkele and Manke a relationship not supported by the text. Surely Asch would have devoted more stage time to their relationship if he had thought it was central to his play. What's more, Manke acts as a seductress and not a woman who has even a passing interest in the future of the innocent Rivkele.

However, Twersky makes a great pimp. And although O'Brien gives Hindl an unnecessary 21st century interpretation (she even chews gum), she makes her desperation both palpable and understandable.

Born in Kutno, Poland, Shalom Asch was a novelist and playwright who wrote some of the most controversial works of modern Yiddish literature. His work falls into three periods: early tragi-comedies about life in the shtetl; novels describing the experiences of European Jewish immigrants in America, written when Asch was living in the U.S.; and finally, works attempting to find a common denominator between Christianity and Judaism. God of Vengeance belongs to the first period.

Although the play was a huge success in Europe, in America, when it moved to commercial theater, it was shut down under charges of obscenity. What's more, the Jewish community was troubled that the drama portrayed Jews in such a poor light. This history is the basis for Paula Vogel's Indecent which has received much critical acclaim — including Curtainup editor Elyse Sommer's rave ( Elyse's review) and is now headed for Broadway. However, as interesting as this history and Vogel's play is, we cannot let it overwhelm the original.

God of Vengeance is not about brothels or lesbians. It is not a sociological or psychological study, or a plea for gay rights. It is about sin, hypocrisy and ultimately man's relationship to God. Surely that is enough to make this play a masterful study of the human soul.

Editor's Note: While God of Vengeance isn't exactly the kind of play that gets produced often, like Chekhov and Shakespeare. However, it has intrigued other adapters before. I had an opportunity to see a very fine production of Donald Margulies's adaptation in 2002 — Here's a link to that review. Paula Vogel, also a Pulitzer winner, took a thrillingly fresh approach to Asch's play with Indecent .. New York theater goers are indeed lucky to have a chance to see the original now at LaMama. And if they missed seeing how Vogel and director Rebecca Taichman have turned it into a brand-new theatrical experience when it opens at the Cort Theater.

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God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch
Directed by Eleanor Reissa
Cast: Eleanor Reissa (Soreh); Shane Baker (Yankl); Shayna Schmidt (Rickele); Caraid O'Brien (Hindl); Melissa Weisz (Manke); Rachel Botchan (Reizl); Mira Kessler (Basha); Luzer Twersky (Shloyme); David Mandelbaum (Reb Eli); Eli Rosen (Scribe/Stranger); Amy Coleman (Poor Blind Woman)
Production/Stage Manager: Mark Bryskowski
Assistant Stage Manager: Kelbi-Caitlin Carrig
Set/Costumes: Vicki R. Davis
Lighting Design: Kirk Bookman
Sound Design: Jesse Freedman
Original Score: Billy Martin
Wardrobe Supervisor/Prop Master: Mimi Barcomi
Assistant to Director: Adrian Silver
Running Time: 95 minutes, no intermission
New Yiddish Rep at La MaMa's Ellen Stewart Theatre, 74A East 4 Street,
From December 22; opened December 25; closing January 22
Wed, Thur, Fri at 7pm; Sat at 3pm & 7pm; Sun at 3pm. Added perfs Sun Dec 25 at 7pm; Mon Dec 26 at 3pm; Sun Jan 1 at 7pm; Mon Jan 2 at 3pm; Tues Jan 10 at 7pm; Tues Jan 17 at 7pm
Tickets: $36
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Jan. 26, 2016

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