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The Megile of Itzik Manger
As The Megile of Itzik Manger chronicles, the deliverance was achieved through the wisdom of the hero, Mordecai (Mordkhe) and the loyalty of his niece, Esther, who marries the king (after his first wife, Vashti, refuses to come when called) and gets the king to change his mind. The story is told in the biblical Book of Esther, known as the Megile. The Purim spiel also tells this story, but in a more comic dramatization. This show, produced by The National Yiddish Theatre/ Folksbiene, follows the latter tradition.
While my children were growing up, I wrote many Purim spiels in which the entire family performed. The songs and themes I integrated into the spiels reflected American culture and more particularly, American musical theater. And so I was pleased to learn in the delightful Yiddish and Purim spiel lesson given by director Motl Didner 45 minutes before every performance of The Megile of Itzik Manger, except the Sunday matinee, that the spiel from its very beginning reflected the culture surrounding the Jewish community.
The Purim spiel was born in renaissance Italy. As the holiday arrives at the end of February or the beginning of March, it coincides with the beginning of Lent or the Mardi Gras. Thus Purim festivities have many of the trappings of the gentile holiday as it was celebrated at that time: parades, puppets, masks, clowns and all sorts of revelries.
All of these elements are outstanding in Folksbiene's production of The Megile of Itzik Manger, which is based on the landmark production that starred the Burstein family, featured sets and costumes by the circus innovator Jenny Romaine and used the poetry of Yiddish poet Itzik Manger. The cast of twelve is led by Tony nominee Stephen Mo Hanan, who plays the clownish King Akheshveyresh.
In this retelling, the story has been changed considerably. The king doesn't just ask that Vashti (Rebecca Keren) appear before him; he demands that she parade naked in front of his ministers, which she refuses to do ("Vashti's Song of Protest"). Although Esther (Stacey Harris) agrees to marry the king, she is really in love with a handsome, young tailor named Fastrigrosse (Andrew Keltz). And Esther is not quite as faithful as a good Jewish wife might be ("The Song of the Golden Peacock"). Both Harris and Keren are vocal powerhouses.
Didner made the clever choice to cast Jonathan Brody as both Homen and his foil, Mordkhe. This only adds the the exuberant foolishness of the show.
The retelling of the Purim story is accompanied by dance, juggling, acrobatics and song. Young men play young ladies to great comic effect. The king wears a clown's nose. Mordkhe has a ridiculously long and ample beard. Joyful klezmer music never lets the pace slacken.
The Megile of Itzik Manager has arrived onstage two months after Purim. The megile has been read, the noisemakers and costumes put away for next year. But when a show is as much fun as this, even without a holiday, it's cause for celebration.