Theatre at UBC
by John Lazarus
Director Aaron Caleb Set design Michael Patton Costume design Krista Sung Lighting Cameron McGill Sound design Michelle Harrison Stage Manager Helina Patience
The pictures from the illustrated books of European folk tales are alive on the Frederic Wood stage for the presentation of John Lazarus's delightful retelling of traditional jokes and fables from Jewish anthologies. Nostalgic eastern European and Jewish folk tunes echo the scene. To these Lazarus adds a less traditional but more threatening element, that of the terrifying pogrom. How the villagers of Chelm, defuse the aggression of the Russian soldiers is ingenious, but you must enjoy stories if you are to believe it.
The villagers of Chelm live in a world of their own, enjoying their way of life. This is not quite as others manage the day to day affairs of living. When the outsider, Miriam (Astrid Varnes) arrives in the village, she is welcomed into the community and treated kindly. She in turn, is tolerant and gentle with her new neighbours, even though she finds their logic somewhat skewed.
The leader of the community is the Rabbi (Ryan Bell), a hospitable man, with a wealth of anecdotes and jokes with which he regales anyone who will listen. He also calls all the neighbours together in times of crisis, to debate the best way to solve the problems.
Among the inhabitants of Chelm are Zlateh and Zalman, unsuccessfully trying to earn a few kopeks selling their home brewed schnapps and finally succumbing to the lure of their fiery brew. This argumentative pair is played by Ruth Brown and Ashley O'Connell.
Then there is Schmendrick (Torrance Coombs), who set out on a journey and found a village the exact replica of Chelm, and moved into the house he found there, with a wife and family, the image of his own.
When Josef (Tim Cadeny) appears from nowhere, as a fugitive, he is greeted by the Rabbi and treated with generous hospitality. It is Miriam who has to teach him that though the ways of his hosts are eccentric, the people are very friendly. They are accustomed to doing things their way and this works for them.
When Josef warns the people of advancing Russian soldiers carrying out a pogrom, they are at first disbelieving, but when Josef finally frightens them into believing him, the committee of the elders comes up with a solution. They will defuse the aggression by hitting themselves over the head and the soldiers will think they are dead and leave them alone.
This is what all the villagers do, and the soldiers adopt the tactic. But this is a folk tale. After the soldiers have become peaceable, Josef is contemplating leaving Chelm, but the charm of the wise Miriam is too much for him so that they both decide to stay in the Village of Idiots and live happily ever after.
This is a meticulously directed production. There is great attention to detail, in the set and costumes, in the change of seasons. The characterization of the many different villagers is well differentiated, both in voice and movement, and the ensemble work of this fifteen member cast, some of whom play dual roles, could not be better. The humour of the script is enjoyed but never overplayed,
Indulge yourself in the enjoyment of this delightful, funny and picturesque fable.
© 2005 Jane Penistan