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BWW Review: THE JEWISH QUEEN LEAR at Theater J

BWW Review: THE JEWISH QUEEN LEAR at Theater J
Mirele Efros (Valerie Leonard) and her sons and daughter-in-law (L-R: Christopher Warren, Healy Knight, Charlie Trepany) in Theater J's production of The Jewish Queen Lear, playing at Georgetown University's Davis Performing Arts Center through April 7.

If the cultural and historical relevance weren't enough incentive, Theater J's production of The Jewish Queen Lear will make you glad for the current revitalization of Yiddish theater. The play is an emotional journey, with insights into family, power, pride, and love.

The Jewish Queen Lear is the English translation (courtesy of Nahma Sandrow) of Jacob Gordin's famed Yiddish play, Mirele Efros, the story of a wealthy, widowed businesswoman and mother of two sons, Yosele and Daniel. The play opens in Slutsk, the small Polish town the family has traveled to for Yosele's wedding. Mirele meets her son's future in-laws, and is immediately put off when they begin their relationship by demanding funds for the lavish wedding they have orchestrated to fit their lofty station (as the grandchildren of a famous rabbi) though not their means. Sensing this will be a recurring theme, Mirele calls off the match, but is persuaded to allow the wedding to continue - under her close direction - when her son professes to love his bride, Shayndele. Unwilling to make her son unhappy, she concedes, but is clearly unmoved by the girl's professions of love and loyalty. The family returns to their home in the metropolitan city of Grondo, where Shayndele shows herself to be more clever than her parents, but of equally crass character - she turns the boys against their mother, abuses Mirele's loyal servant, Makhle, and eventually wrests control of the family business from Mirele. Mirele, unwilling to have a confrontation in her home or in any way hurt her sons, bears each indignity, even as the business flounders and her loyal business manager, Shalmen, strikes it out on his own, until it all finally comes to a head that leads to her leaving her home to work for Shalmen, taking Makhle with her for comfort as well as the girl's protection. Ten years later, with the business thoroughly destroyed and Yosele and Shayndele's son's bar mitzvah looming, the family is forced to confront their stalemate.

BWW Review: THE JEWISH QUEEN LEAR at Theater J
Healy Knight and Valerie Leonard in Theater J's production of The Jewish Queen Lear, playing at Georgetown University's Davis Performing Arts Center through April 7.

Theater J's production, supported by Georgetown University, is a skilled and stirring telling. The cast - a mix of local actors and Georgetown students - is immensely talented and entertaining. Mirele is played by the incomparable Valerie Leonard, whose lead is both formidable and vulnerable. For all of her iron will and stubbornness, her Mirele is governed by love, and she both tolerates her indignities and inspires deep loyalties because of her heart. Karl Kippola's Nokhemeste (Shayndele's dim-witted father with a fondness for platitudes) is delightfully irritating, and Tonya Beckman's Khane-Devoyre is wonderfully exacerbated as his conniving wife. Shayndele is portrayed by Georgetown student Healy Knight, who carries the character's worst moments in the best way while still allowing the audience to peek at the vulnerabilities that made her a worthy villain to Mirele's heroine; the chutzpah she displays makes the audience delight in hating her. Fellow students Christopher Warren and Charlie Trepany put on a convincing partnership as brothers, portraying pushover Yosele and temperamental Daniel, respectively. Frank X's Shalmen carries the quiet dignity that befits his and Mirele's business, and provides a direct contrast for the chaos Shayndele's family brings; his steadiness grounds the show, yet never slips into stoicism. And Makhle, portrayed by Sue Jin Song, brings both humor and emotion to the performance, and serves as a bit of a narrator and comedic relief for the audience in her monologues. The cast is rounded out by the impressive Shane Wall, who plays Yosele and Shayndele's son, Shloymele; his no-nonsense approach to the family rift is refreshing and fun just as the story hits its emotional peak. (I'd also like to note that Alana Dodds Sharp, as the Cantor, and Christopher Warren deserve tremendous credit for their emotional prayer scene at the wedding, even though it was difficult to take notes through my tears.)

Equally impressive are the production elements themselves. Ivania Stack's costume designs are wonderfully expressive - Mirele, Shalmen, and Makhle all wear older, traditional styles, while the children all wear modern clothing, showing a stark contrast between the generations and their approaches. This contrast is heightened by Pam Weiner's clever prop placement - the shift of the black ledgers to the sleek Macbook as the business changed hands was particularly striking. Andrew R. Cohen's scenic design is both flexible and immersive, and director Adam Immerwahr's careful direction creates a tight and relatable show that always feels sure of itself. Every element of the show is carefully considered, and the actions are deliberate, but never feel stilted or forced; it's easy to watch the family on stage and realize you know one just like it (or maybe are a part of it). The artistic decisions help the show exist very intentionally as both as a period piece and a modern piece, and it draws the audience in so deeply that there were often murmurs from audience members taking sides in the onstage arguments. The cast and crew deserve full credit for bringing this production so vividly to life.

BWW Review: THE JEWISH QUEEN LEAR at Theater J
Sue Jing Song, Frank X, and Valerie Leonard in Theater J's production of The Jewish Queen Lear, playing at Georgetown University's Davis Performing Arts Center through April 7.

Mirele Efros is a surprisingly modern play, and The Jewish Queen Lear honors both the past and present in its performance. It's a touching story, a wonderful cast of characters (in both senses of the phrase), and a beautiful production.

The Jewish Queen Lear plays at Georgetown University's Davis Performing Arts Center through April 7th. Run time is approximately two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission. Information on tickets and special post-show discussions can be found on the Theater J website. For more of BroadwayWorld's coverage, read our interview with Frank X (Shalmen).

Photo Credits: C. Stanley Photography

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