March 17, 2005
Asch’s Apocalyptic Now
"If we don't change something now, if people don't open their eyes, we're not gonna have a world," said director Eva Minemar during a rehearsal with "God of Vengeance," the classic Sholem Asch play. An enfant terrible of the Yiddish-Polish theater, Asch staged his story of Yankel -- a brothelkeeper who tries to keep his ravishing daughter, Rivkele, from falling into sin -- in 1905. When the melodrama opened on Broadway in 1923, police raided the theater and locked up Asch's director and cast on obscenity charges.
Can Minemar's version, which was adapted by Steve Fife for The Coleman and Smith Artistic Company in Hollywood, generate similar fireworks? By setting it in "the apocalyptic now," the director hopes to. Minemar, whose father is Israeli and mother is Sicilian, comes from the Lower East Side of Manhattan theater scene. Her recent work includes producing and directing, "Angry Jellow Bubbles," a 90-character play for female voices that has traveled the world.
Asch was steeped in Torah, and was once the most popular Yiddish writer alive. His depictions of the tawdry side of Jewish life were serialized in the Forvertz before I.B. Singer's. "God of Vengeance" has been anthologized as one of the three greatest Jewish plays (along with "The Dybbuk" and "The Golem"). When he went on to write three books about Jesus, Asch was dismissed as a heretic, a meshumad (convert from Judaism).
"He also had six kids, lived in Hollywood and wrote movies," said Fife, a playwright whose adaptation was originally commissioned by the Jewish Rep in NYC.
Asch, who died in Israel in 1957, has recently been reconsidered in a new collection of essays, "Back From Oblivion," edited by Nanette Stahl (Yale University Press).
He was 21 when he wrote this note about Yankel the brothelkeeper: "The world he betrays is so sordid and decaying that belief in a higher being is humanity's only alternative to despair."
"I think it's there in a nutshell," Minemar said.
Plays now through April 10. 8 p.m. (Fridays and Saturdays), 3 p.m. (Sundays). $20. The Coleman and Smith Artistic Company, 6902 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. For tickets, call (323) 960-7829.
Hank Rosenfeld is a storyteller on public radio's "All Things Considered" and "The Savvy Traveler."