“If God chose us as his children, he should have chosen us all.” The words, spoken by the heroine, Yentl, in the first act of the acclaimed play written by Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer, state the main tenet of the work. It’s difficult for us to believe that women were forbidden education in most of the world, including our Western civilization, for all but the last 200 years, but recent events in the Middle East and Africa give us a telescopic view into our own past. The short story, “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” was written by Singer in the 1950s and was set in late 19th-century Poland. The story is about a young girl who breaks Hassidic law by insisting that her father, a widowed rabbi, allow her to learn and argue the Torah with him and goes on to pass as a boy in order to continue her education.
A fresh, updated take on a timeless classic, the Asolo Rep production of “Yentl” is not the Barbra Streisand movie you remember. Gordon Greenberg has directed a lively, well-paced blend of modern and traditional elements to produce a comical and touching evening of love, lessons in life and “the androgyny of the soul.”
Contributions to the modernist feel come largely from the new score composed by pop/rock singer/songwriter Jill Sobule, who combines traditional klezmer with soulful ballads.
Another new twist is brief full frontal male nudity during a bathing scene, which is unusual enough to be somewhat shocking but highly appropriate to the context of a girl passing herself off as a boy. This scene is made physically possible with the aid of brilliantly symbolic scenic design by Brian Sidney Bembridge, whose background frieze includes a towering scaffold filled with books.
Hillary Clemens is compelling as Yentl and her altar ego, Anshel. She conveys boyish enthusiasm, passion, shyness and empathy. Andrew Carter is perfect as friend, student and love interest, Avigdor, as is Gisela Chipe, in the role of the third spoke on the romantic triangle, Hadass.
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