“Yentl:” Two hours of awkward, silly accents

Joseph Verbovszky, Staff Reporter

I caught myself at least three times with an expression somewhere between confusion and revulsion on my face as I watched “Yentl.” After my initial reaction, I find myself still having similar feelings about the whole experience, despite the distance from the episode. Apparently time does not heal all wounds, or at least those inflicted by Cleveland Playhouse’s production (or should I say re-imagining) of “Yentl.” Yet, it does grant me the clarity to see what exactly it was that proved to be the proverbial thorn in my side: everything. The CPH production completely inverts the serious nature of the short story of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” adapted for Broadway in 1975 by Leah Napolin (prominently listed under the genre of “Drama”) and instead presents us with a shticky “dramedy,” whose defining feature is that it feels tacked together.

Foremost among my complaints is that the setting in no way feels like a shtetl in Poland. Instead it resembles a neighborhood in Brooklyn where Jews from many different origins are thrust together in a sort of hodgepodge community. This was underscored by the disparity in character accents. Some sounded like your average American while others sounded like the stereotypically embarrassing Eastern European cousins. It was very hard to take a character (caricature might be more apt) seriously when their lines are delivered in a comically over-the-top accent. It didn’t help that some portions of the play were spoken in Hebrew and, given that there were no subtitles for said portions, meant that those without Hebrew language skills had about as much of an idea of what was going on as anyone at a Latin mass.

Even if the character’s accents hadn’t been all over the place, I’m not sure it would have made much of a difference. The author apparently had never heard of the word subtlety and many of the lines crossed the line labeled “ridiculous.” On top of that, the actors delivered these with about as much believability as Barnum’s Fiji Mermaid. The major plot device is Yentl’s love of the Torah and the prohibition of her studying it according to Jewish law. Yet, after the brief introduction of the topic, it slips back into obscurity, rearing its ugly head only when the plot demands that the clichéd relationship of the main characters be broken up for the ending. My point being, after Yentl arrives at the Yeshiva, she does precious little studying (or at least that is completely ignored by the events of the play) and instead we see her interacting with Avigdor and Hadass on a much more “earthly” level. It’s not convincing to simply say that Yentl loves studying the Torah, she actually has to do it. The relationship between Yentl and the Torah has to be substantial enough to justify her actually quite radical decisions throughout the play. Unfortunately, it does not.

While I’m on the subject of “earthly,” I may as well point out the ungodly amount of pointless nudity in this play. Was it necessary to have Avigdor saunter across the stage looking like Adam before he ate the apple? Does it do anything, anything at all for the plot? No, it does not. Neither do the other scenes of random naked man buttocks that briefly bounce up in the corner of the stage before disappearing just as rapidly or Yentl flashing the audience to confirm our suspicions that she is indeed a woman. I was very surprised when it came time for the bathing scene and Hadass was hidden behind a silhouette. Why bother with the curtain? At this point it just seemed like false modesty; we’ve already seen everything. I should clarify that I am very much a supporter of artistic and aesthetic nudity that powerfully underscores the themes of the play. These scenes however, were gratuitous and reeked of shock value.

There is really very little to recommend “Yentl.” Even the set design is basically a rehash of the set design used in the Playhouse Square production of “Once.” Come to think of it, the story is somewhat similar (minus the transvestitism) in that the main character gives up his budding relationship to pursue a larger dream. Even the music is better.

Ultimately, “Yentl” is one of the worst productions of the season. And on top of it, it’s incredibly long. At over two hours, probably nearing two and a half, it drags with the pacing of a sloth stuck to fly-paper (and I actually enjoyed a four hour production of “Little Man What Now?”). If the director had only decided to tell a simpler, more direct story, it might have been bearable, enjoyable even. As it stands, the characters run helter-skelter in a poorly tacked together house of cards, threatening to imminently collapse, destroying the plot along with it.