Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Gonif With The Wind

The classics are constantly up for reinterpretation. At the recent Best of PlayGround Festival, Raelle Myrick-Hodges directed Garret Jon Groenveld's short play, Childless, in a way that offered new insights into exactly why Medea (Cathleen Riddley) chose to kill her two sons.

Cathleen Riddley as Medea in Childless
Michael J. Asberry portrayed Jason as an archetypal male chauvinist pig who insisted that the reason he could bring Creusa Glace (Roselyn Hallett) home as a trophy wife was because he was, after all, Medea's king. A few tacky insults from Creusa Glace was all it took to strengthen Medea's resolve. The following clip gives a brief glimpse of a royal marriage on the rocks.

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Shakespeare's plays are always fair game for interpretation. Several months ago, Ralph Fiennes unveiled his brilliant cinematic updating of Coriolanus. At last summer's Frameline LGBT Film Festival I was deeply impressed with Alan Brown's provocative approach to Romeo and Juliet. In his director's statement, Brown wrote:
"Though Romeo and Juliet is usually interpreted as a romantic tale of young love thwarted by a family feud, recent re-readings convinced me that it is actually a much more modern and relevant story about sexual identity and desire pitted against society and its institutions; about personal freedom and rights versus authority. As a gay man and an artist frustrated by the political battles and inaction over gay equality and by the heart-breaking epidemic of gay bullying, I thought Shakespeare would be the perfect vehicle for exploring these issues. As Private Romeo’s high school military cadets find themselves in the kinds of emotionally tumultuous situations -- falling in love, the loss of friendship, confronting homophobia -- that would leave any adolescent (or adult) at a loss for words -- they must use Shakespeare’s language as their sole means of expression, forcing them to explore the profound drama of coming of age."

Brown sets the action on the campus of the fictional McKinley Military Academy, where a group of eight cadets are left behind over a school break while everyone else heads out to visit friends and family. The cadets are instructed to follow their standard military routine with no deviation. But as they begin to read Shakespeare aloud in a classroom, an interesting transformation takes place. Slowly, each cadet starts to identify with one of the characters from Romeo and Juliet, taking on that character's emotions and lines long after leaving the classroom.

Whether rallying around friends, protecting one cadet from bullying, or falling in love with another cadet who plays on the opposing basketball team, the language of Shakespeare dominates the action in Brown's film. It's an interesting twist, especially considering that in Shakespeare's day all roles were played by men.

Whether you are a Shakespeare scholar, love to watch young jocks playing basketball, or have a fetish for men in uniforms, Private Romeo offers plenty of food for thought. From sharply-angled locker room shots to darkly-lit moments of self doubt, Derek McKane's cinematography helps to frame the roiling emotions of young love, jealousy, ecstasy, and revenge.

If you have not yet seen Private Romeo, you should definitely rent it from Netflix or purchase the DVD. What I love about this film is how it takes one of the world's most famous love stories and transfers it from very publicly recognizable segments of society to a more stifling and insular subculture. Here's the trailer:

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It's hard to find a more stifling and insular culture in America than that of Hasidic Jews, which is why Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish is such an interesting project. The history of the Yiddish theatre is filled with productions that "improved" upon the original (including Shakespeare). Eve Annenberg's film takes some wonderful leaps of fancy while staying remarkably close to the original play.

Annenberg was as surprised as anyone else by her inspiration for the film:
"For Jews living in New York, we have only to look around us, even on the subway, to be faced with a culture which is ours, yet not ours. The divide between Ultra Orthodox and Secular Jews is so wide that we differ on the definition of what it is to be a Jew. This has become a huge issue not just in Israel but also here, on the streets of Manhattan and the neighborhoods of Brooklyn where we pass each other, but do not talk.
As a super secular person I used to have a lot of issues with the Ultra Orthodox (if I even thought about them). Loathed their politics, their effect on Israel, their general aloofness, even their style. I think it's Woody Allen who said 'Every Jew thinks that any Jew who is more religious than he crazy.'

Then, in 2006, I stumbled upon a floating weekly party of Ultra Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox 'leavers' who came together weekly to chat, eat, sing, and interact with secular people and non-Jews. They listened to impromptu lectures (one regularly given on philosophy by a friend to the group, a Palestinian philosopher en route to China to teach English). I was hooked by the singing, that a cappella wail in a minor key which reminded me of my childhood, and the transporting, disorienting presence of a dozen people, age 18 to 23, who were speaking Yiddish as a first language. I felt like I had stepped back in time, like I was in a bunker in Europe in the 1940s, like I'd landed in a Yiddish Oz.
It was a visual feast, from the fashionably unkempt young, integrating traditional talismans, from peyos to the tape measure, to the fantastically put together Satmar visions of ...what? Dutch Jews circa 1600? The first time I perceived a 21 year old in white knee socks, black layers and peyos as a romantic vision, I knew that something had shifted for me and that perhaps I could share my new perception and the thrill I got (when hearing speedy young Yiddish babbling around me) with my own world."

Lazer Weiss as Romeo

Because I grew up in a home where Yiddish was the second language for my parents and the first language for my grandparents, I found it fascinating to watch this film and hear the musicality of the Yiddish language on screen. Many have claimed that one of the great strengths of Yiddish is that one word, spoken in a variety of inflections, can redefine an insult in many ways.

I'm not really sure if the use of "street-smart Yiddish" equates to labeling the film as "Yiddish mumblecore." After all, what little Yiddish vocabulary most Americans know comes from Jewish comedians. However:
  • In any language, Tybalt would still be a putz.
  • It's interesting to hear Romeo and his cousin, Benvolio, teasing each other with the word "nudnik."
  • Faigie is a disgruntled Orthodox Jewish teenager whose Juliet is a beautiful, intelligent young woman trying to avoid a matchmaker's "shidduch."
  • In the film, the Capulet feast has been transformed into a Purim party.
  • As in West Side Story, the balcony scene takes place with Juliet standing on the fire escape of an apartment building.
  • Juliet's tomb is an Orthodox "tahara schtiebel."
  • A subtitle that reads “Oy vay, thy lips are still warm!” might indicate that Juliet is, indeed, quite verklempt, but makes perfect sense when translating conversational Yiddish.
Bubbles Yoeli Weiss as Mercutio

As Annenberg explains:
"Only one shy scholar in the crowd knew the play and that there was a translation at YIVO. A year later, having cut down the English and located the Yiddish in the Goldberg translation of 1936, it proved unusable as Yiddish has evolved from that era, and the vernacular of the translation was too academic and stilted for the young actors I had chosen.

My actors (whom I made producers) had left the intense cocoon of their Orthodoxy in their mid teens and still struggled with secular life, English, earning a living, etc. I had so many differences and yet, at the core, shared humor, spirituality, creativity, and chutzpah. So much chutzpah!

I remember my jaw dropping to find out that the 'People of the Book' didn't read Shakespeare in high school. But also being astounded to discover that the poorest of my actors, young, sick, virtually homeless, kept a sock full of tzedaka that he pulled out and gave away for 'charity emergencies.' I was a bridge to 'America' for some of them while, for me, they were a dozen little brothers I adored. They might come 'by me' for a meal or a couch to sleep on. Exquisite features of young people I tease as being 'inbred to perfection.'"
Josef Yossi Friedman (Tybalt), Lazer Weiss (Romeo) and
Bubbles Yoeli Weiss (Mercutio) take a break while filming
 Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish

In her film, Annenberg portrays Ava, a secular Jew who is a middle-aged emergency room nurse working on her Master’s degree. Given the task of translating Romeo and Juliet from old Yiddish to new Yiddish, Ava turns for help to the EMT/rabbi (Isaac Schoenfeld) who often accompanies Orthodox Jewish patients who have overdosed to her hospital's emergency room. He, in turn, introduces her to Lazer (Lazer Weiss) and Mendy -- a team of Ultra Orthodox gonifs who have never read any Shakespeare or, for that matter, even heard the story of Romeo and Juliet (it's quite possible they've never heard of West Side Story, either).

Filmmaker Eve Annenberg as Juliet's nurse

Though Lazer (who has a drug habit) and Mendy may be ultra Orthodox, they know how to score weed (by the end of the movie, they've managed to run up a $20,000 bill on Ava's credit card). A big fan of Entourage, Mendy has been captivated by the concept of romantic love (which does not exist in Orthodox Yiddishkeit). While Mendy claims to be “waiting for a call,” Lazer teases him by pointing out that “Love is a fiction, like Kashrut and the Resurrection.”

When another young Orthodox Jew named Zalman (David Germano) claims to be suffering from "Kabbalitis" and suggests he may be leaking magic from having studied the Kabbalah too hard, Ava offers to let him crash at her place. Zalman’s magic soon starts to infect Mendy (Mendy Zafir) and Lazer, who have been translating the Shakespearean text in Ava's apartment.

As they work on translating Shakespeare, they start to fantasize about a parallel universe  in which the Montagues are Satmar Jews and the Capulets are Chabadnicks living in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. True to form, Ava becomes Juliet’s nurse and the rabbi becomes the Yiddish equivalent of Friar Lawrence. When a young man cuts off his peyos, his father banishes him from the community.

Poster art for Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish

Romeo and Juliet In Yiddish moves its cast from Coney Island to lower Manhattan, from Williamsburg to fantasy sequences greatly removed from the realities of Hasidic life. Perhaps the most telling moment comes at a party when one of the young men follows Ava out the door and asks her for a date. Her reply is blunt: "I don't hate you, I hate your culture."

Romeo (Lazer Weiss) and Juliet (Melissa Weisz)
in a scene from Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish

If there is one drawback to Annenberg's film it's that viewers may be torn between trying to read the rapidly changing subtitles while listening to people speaking conversational Yiddish onscreen for the first time in decades. Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish is visually so rich that it's difficult to take everything in with one viewing.

Bubbles Yoeli Weiss makes a strong impression as Mercutio, as does the radiant Melissa Weisz (Juliet). Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish is one of those Indie films that, while hardly perfect, shows so much imagination and promise that movie lovers should go the distance to find it and experience Shakespeare from a radically new, provocative, and often startling perspective. Here's the trailer:

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