A Bintel Brief: Yiddish Theatre alive and well in Montreal

By Glenn J. Nashen

 The Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre opened its 60th season this week with its latest production of A Bintel Brief. This performance at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts  is brought back to the stage after it originally opened in Montreal in the 1970s. It is a story based upon real letters to the editor of a Yiddish language daily newspaper in New York City in the early 1900s.

The production is composed of a series of true stories of Jewish immigrants coming to America and trying to adapt to their new world. It not only connects the stories of immigrants in the early 20th century to their former lives in Russia and Europe but it also connects them to their descendents 100 years later.

A Bintel Brief peeks inside the immigrant experience of long ago and reminds us that little has changed and that the struggles and efforts made are both timeless and universal.

The show is brought to life by budding director Michelle Heisler who has previously acted in the DWYT and works with young children’s theatre. Heisler is a talented actor and singer having performed on stage across Canada, the United States and Europe.

The cast is an energetic and spirited group of youngsters, young adults and older folk who come together as though they were a true family.

Aron Gonshor and Sam Stein are iconic in the DWYT and for good reason. Their vaudeville singing and dancing with old-fashioned, side-splitting humour kept the audience in tears of laughter. Their schtick was out of Wayne and Shuster and they were classic funnymen. They also took on serious roles in skits ranging in theme from overworked and underpaid, depressed immigrants to tragic episodes involving loss of life and great despair. If there are lifetime achievement awards for outstanding performance in Yiddish theatre this duo is certainly right for the prize.

Mikey Samra is known for  his many performances in the Cote Saint-Luc Dramatic Society but his stage presence in Yiddish was equally spectacular. He is a compelling young actor who will continue to flourish in whatever language he chooses.

Jodi Lackman has played at the Segal before but her performance in A Bintel Brief takes the cake. Her facial expressions and shrieking voice at learning her husband has another wife and children, her melodramatic overtones in yearning for her secret lover and her comedic expressions are worthy of praise and applause.

The list of talented and dedicated young actors who have put in tremendous effort to speak a language that is probably quite foreign to most of them is long and impressive. Kudos to all of them for entertaining the audience with song and dance, with drama and comedy and by keeping the language and rich history alive.

One particular skit involves a class of immigrants trying to learn to speak English. It is ridiculously funny with mispronunciation and misunderstanding. I could just imagine my Bubby and Zaida in such a class with their thick yiddishe accents trying to learn their new language. Indeed, I still remember the words of my very funny Russian-born Zaida who’d say, “I speak 12 languages and don’t understand any of them!”

The stage was simple and old fashion in the Segal Centre’s smaller theatre. Presented with English and French supertitles it is an easy-to-understand show even if you’re not fluent in mama-loschen. The four piece band was fun and lively under the musical direction of Nick Burgess.

Despite the young children who sing and dance in the first act (they leave at intermission to get home for bedtime) the heavy adult themes would give this musical performance a PG-13 rating, not age appropriate for pre-teens.

DWYT President Ben Gonshor thanked the capacity opening-night audience for continuing to support community theatre, particularly in Yiddish. With such great benefactors such as Alvin Segal, Barbara Seal and the Azrielli Foundation and Federation CJA Montrealers are fortunate in that they will continue to be treated to such memorable and entertaining evenings for years to come.

A Bintel Brief continues at the Segal Centre though October 21. Tickets are available at SegalCentre.org or by calling 514-739-7944.

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