REVIEW: Yentl - Kadimah Yiddish Theatre/Malthouse Theatre

…the Hebrew Bible, when read in its original language, offers a highly elastic view of gender. And I do mean highly elastic: In Genesis 3:12, Eve is referred to as “he.” In Genesis 9:21, after the flood, Noah repairs to “her” tent. Genesis 24:16 refers to Rebecca as a “young man.” And Genesis 1:27 refers to Adam as “them.”

In his op-ed in The New York Times in 2016 “Is God Transgender?”, Rabbi Mark Sameth looked at gender in the Hebrew Bible and asked about the gender of God.

In the opening scene of this new translation and stage play of Yentl, based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s original short story, a narrator-demon character (referred to in the script as The Figure) dives further into definitions of the divine. Hebrew is a gendered language, The Figure explains. But so too are the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

The four letters of the Hebrew word for God – anglicised as YHWH (Yod, Heh, Wah and Heh) – break down as two male letters and one female letter repeated. Thus, God may not be considered male or female, exclusively. And maybe God is both.

It’s a bold opening to this production, which feels both ancient and new in its approach to a story most of us only know because of the Barbra Streisand film from 1983. That film, produced, directed, co-written and starring Streisand is the first thing most people think of when Yentl is mentioned – mostly because she still owns the rights to the English translation of Singer’s story.

In this new production, developed by Kadimah Yiddish Theatre in Melbourne, the creators have gone back to Singer’s Yiddish text. It’s not unusual for a new adaptation to return to the source material, but this side-steps a rights entanglement with Ms Streisand rather deftly.

This is a world away from a showcase for the superstar (which she turned into a musical), and digs deep into Jewish mysticism and spirituality in a playful, confronting and totally engaging way. Beginning with the Figure (played with marvellous relish by Evelyn Krape) outlines the vernacular of this re-telling: there are ghosts and dybbuks here, as well as the fact it’s bi-lingual, the actors speaking in Yiddish and English.

The story of Yentl is well-known, I think. Having never seen the film, I understood it to be about a young Jewish woman wanting to learn, so she dresses as a man to attend Yeshiva. While the film does follow the beats of the original story, this version – co-written by Gary Abrahams, Elise Esther Hearst and Galit Klas – has a lot more on its mind than a story about a woman yearning for an education that is denied to her by society. It digs into the complexity of gender, refusing to adhere to binary definitions, and finds new things to say inside an old story.

Dann Barber’s set creates a mood instantly. The cold grey edifice, punctured by windows and an archway will become home and bedroom and school. A ladder stands against it and Yentl (a compelling, magnetic Amy Hack) climbs it early on, unable to reach the highest window – knowing that knowledge is far beyond her grasp. But when her father dies, she cuts her hair and travels far away to start her new life as Anshel, enrolling at the same Yeshiva as Avigdor, who she met in a pub. Her whole new life begins.

Some of the misunderstandings about who Yentl is are played for the kind of laughs you might expect from a cross-dressing Shakespearean farce, but the truth of it is so much more grounded here that the jokes only further enhance the drama of the situation. As Yentl-as-Anshel gets closer and closer to Avigdor (a lively Nicholas Jaquinot), the play unpacks not just gender inequality and toxic masculinity, it starts to question Yentl’s gender expression on a deeper, more granular level. If the four letters of God are a mix of genders, this Yentl may not only be a woman dressed as a man. They may be so much more.

Russell Goldsmith’s sound design is subtle and evocative. Beyond fixing us to a place, a sense of dread creeps in and the whole theatre rumbles at moments of grand revelation. And it is grand – when truths are exposed and beliefs questioned, we aren’t just in the presence of people hiding domestic secrets but of an entire way of life being questioned.

The script is crafted in a way to give voice to modern discussion about gender and trans identities. But it’s all fixed within a frame that is ancient – God and demons without gender, and people created from dust and the earth that cannot be defined by a rigid binary. It’s heady stuff – a rich text leaving the audience with much to think about on leaving the theatre.

Director Gary Abrahams has a clear vision – infusing the story with the playfulness of stories passed along for generations, with a layer that interrogates queerness without feeling didactic. Every interaction is filled with possibility and portent, offset by quips from Krape’s Figure – enjoying the increasing chaos with the kind of joyful cackling you can only get from a trickster character.

Amy Hack’s performance as Yentl is remarkable – Melbourne will be talking about this for a long time to come. She’s commanding of the audience’s attention, even when the character makes herself small or hides from a moment of truth. There is a gentleness and vulnerability to the character, a woman who is otherwise headstrong and transgressive to the society of the play and, perhaps still, to some members of the audience.

It's only March, but Yentl has already cemented itself as a show that will stand as one of the best of the year. Abrahams and the whole cast and crew are at the top of their game – breathing new life into a story you might have heard before, but have never seen like this. Not to be missed.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

Yentl is on stage at the Malthouse until March 17th 

Photos: Jeff Busby