Gimpel the Fool & The Lady and the Peddler

Gimpel the Fool by Isaac Beshevis Singer
translated by Saul Bellow
adapted, designed, directed, performed by Howard Rypp
The Lady and the Peddler by S.Y. Agnon
translated by Avraham Leader
adapted by Yosepha Even-Shoshan
directed by Geula Jeffet-Attar
featuring Victor Attar and Ilana Cohen (voice by Geula Jeffet-Attar)

La MaMa, 74A East 4th Street
January 19, 2012 — January 29, 2012
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
January 20, 2012

  • “Better to be a fool all of your days than to be evil for one hour.” (Gimpel)
  • “When love is conditional, it is destined to die.” (Peddler)
“Gimpel the Fool.” Howard Rypp. Photo by Lee Wexler.
The Lady and the Peddler. (L-R) Ilana Cohen, Victor Attar. Photo by Lee Wexler.

This evening of literary adaptations introduces us to stories crafted by prize-winning authors.  Isaac Beshevis Singer penned the original “Gimpel” and S.Y. Agnon (my first introduction to his work) wrote “The Lady and the Peddler.”   These works in translation are in turn translated by international companies into works on stage and appear to lose much in all those transitions.  Selected moments of pared story telling resonate, while all too frequently a simple yet moralistic fairy tale is forced to bear the burden of unnecessary props, overwhelming stage craft (smoke smoke smoke), and incomplete integration of art forms (including limited use of projections in the evening’s second act).

Fairy tales, any tales with a narrator telling his own story, present a clear challenge every theatre adaptor must confront.  How will the narrator enact his tale for us — purely through the power of his personality and his descriptive language (think Spalding Gray or Mike Daisey, almost motionless in their chairs, behind a table, simply telling a tale) or will this narrator rise, move from area to area, change voices, take on props and pieces of costume, be in his story?

A kind of messy amalgamation is presented in different combinations in each of our two acts.  In our one-man tale of simple Gimpel (Howard Rypp), a wanderer with a pack on his back begins the story as a series of reflections and continues this story of his own life as pure narration, with additional recorded voices who speak to him. Simple Gimpel’s narration provides hardly a space for us to feel a single emotion.  We are told a story while the baking flower rises and a wanton wife does him wrong.  In the second tale of a peddler (Victor Attar) lost in the woods taken in by a mysterious woman dancer (Ilana Cohen), dance and multi-media are mixed with music and narration in an uneasy blend.  Moments of projections on the peddler’s sack are abruptly halted by narration that seems stilted. Eating is mimed using bowls and platters, while other moments of dance and suggestion with fabrics (including an intriguing upright bed scene) are movement based and inherently and delightfully theatrical.  I found myself wondering whether storytelling purely with movement and projections and the beautiful fabrics (and less language and less, oh please much less smoke) would more powerfully and consistently present this straightforward story of a forest resident woman who hides evil intent behind offers of help, respite, sustenance to a passing peddler.

The stories are fables of hope and trust and faith and evil.  The storytelling modes complicate the delivery of the original authors’ messages.  Simpler is better.

© Martha Wade Steketee (January 23, 2012)

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