Monday, April 17, 2017

A Night in the Old Marketplace Returns to New York City

Holy shit. This fall will mark my 20th anniversary living here in the Big Apple.

I think I'm gonna need some more time to digest that little milestone. And to accept the fact that I am officially no longer 'young.' I mean, I'm Yiddish young, but not young young. Alas.

In 2007 (that is, a decade ago, wow, time flies) I saw a staged performance of a new song cycle based on I. L. Peretz's epic play, Bay nakht afn altn mark (A Night in the Old Marketplace). The lyrics were by Glen Berger and music was by none other than the East Village's own one man klezmer revolution, Frank London. 

Peretz, revolutionary Yiddish theatre, a haunted Polish well and Frank London, you can imagine, I was excited to be there. But A Night in the Old Marketplace went much further back than 2007. This 'new' Bay nakht had been in the works for a decade, and, as it turned out, I had been there ten years prior, desperate to get in, when a very early version of the song cycle was performed downtown. But on that evening, in the fall of 1997, I was just another nobody, new to New York and despite my eagerness (or maybe because of it) I was cruelly denied. Happily, I not only got in to see the show in 2007, I got press comps this time. Getting older (or at least just surviving) has its perks.

Since then, A Night in the Old Marketplace has existed mostly as a fantastic cast album, but this year Frank has been taking the show on the road- Brazil, Denmark, Italy and Canada. And now, New York, on May 4 and 6th. (scroll to the very end of this for more info on tickets and a preview)

In honor of this new staging of A Night in the Old Marketplace I'm sharing what I wrote about it in 2007 for Jewish Currents. I think it goes without saying, read this, then get your tickets immediately.


(MAY-JUNE 2007)

I. L. Peretz worked on his epic play, Bay Nakht Afn Altn Mark (“Night in the Old Marketplace”) for almost ten years. It was first published in 1907, and revised multiple times until his death in 1916. The play barely has any dramatic arc, almost a hundred characters (many of whom have only one line), and framing devices within framing devices within framing devices. It’s a sprawling modernist collage that picked up all the big themes of Peretz’s work, with stage directions that require million-dollar budgets. It’s what I might colloquially refer to as an Attention Deficit Disorder mess.

Bay Nakht has only been produced five times, but it’s catnip to the most ambitious and avant-garde Jewish artists of each generation. It’s no surprise to find that Bay Nakht has a new life in the hands of three of the most interesting Jewish artists of our generation. Composer Frank London, writer Glen Berger and dramaturge Alexandra Aron have been working on their version for almost as long as Peretz revised the original. I remember when it first came around in the fall of 1997. I was new to New York and circled the listing in the paper.

If you’d ever been to Fez, you’ll recall its location on Great Jones Street, a coordinate that’s cute and charming when you’re strolling, but not so cute when you’re still new to the area and hoping to get into a show and it’s 7:55 and you realize you didn’t call to find out if there might be tickets left. I inched into the packed anteroom of Fez with about fifty other Jews. Shmushed against each other, we were pushed back against the wall as the artists swept past, down the hall and then downstairs to the club. I recognized Frank London (He’s famous, he’s in the Klezmatics!). Then he was gone, trumpet case slung over his shoulder. The bitchy lady at the entrance told us, without pity, that the show was sold out.

That was ten years ago. Just a few weeks ago, I made up for that night by attending the premiere performance for the new CD, A Night in the Old Marketplace, featuring words and music by Frank London and Glen Berger. I even got press tickets for me and my date. It took ten years, but at least I didn’t have to pay!

This new Night in the Old Marketplace exists for the time being only as a song cycle; it hasn’t been produced as a full stage production. What I saw a few weeks ago at the Barrow Street Theater was singers playing different roles, with Glen Berger as the Narrator. It was an incredible performance that featured not only London’s frequent collaborators (like Lorin Sklamberg of the Klezmatics) but also amazing Broadway talents like LaTonya Hall, who blew everyone away with her version of “Meet Me in the Old Market Place.” 

Over the course of ten years of work on this production, the concept of how it would be presented changed, too. (One version over the years compressed all hundred characters into one, with the badkhn taking center stage and singers as mere accompaniment.) The new production provides a more coherent narrative, while still focusing on the major themes of the text: the conflict between tradition and modernity, between faith and rationalism, and between free will and fatalism. Can human beings challenge the ineffable plan of God? Is true revolution, political, mystical or religious, ever a viable option? Those conflicts, in Peretz’s original text, are cloaked by the freewheeling “tragic carnivalspiel” (as Peretz termed it) created by the unstageable stage directions and the huge cast of characters, both living and dead, including talking buildings and a gargoyle.

According to Nahma Sandrow’s study, Wandering Stars, Peretz’s friends begged him to make the play “less a poem and more a play, with a tighter plot and more distinguishable characters. Peretz insisted that the truly Yiddish style, which would one day be acknowledged as such, was all in cryptic hints, and in interpretation of what is hidden.” While I sympathize with the stubbornness and avant-garde spirit of Peretz, the impressionist poetry of Bay Nakht meant that after devoting so much of his life to working and re-working the text, Peretz died without seeing it come to the stage.

One of its most famous productions was by the Moscow Yiddish Theater. According to Sandrow, it “recreated Bay Nakht in the image of the revolution, chopped out lines, characters, and added new ones.” In a way, the latest production has also been recreated in the image of its producers — not in the apocalyptic spirit of 1925, but in the pragmatic yet revolutionary image of the Jewish avant garde of 2007. Much of the first act has been eliminated, along with the many layers of framing devices. A love story, which appears as just one of many ripples of drama among the original swarm of characters, has been moved to the top of the narrative. Sheyndele and Nosn, the thwarted lovers, are reunited when Sheyndele is one of the many dead brought back to life by the mad badkhn. The dead klezmorimcalled up from the otherworldly well in the center of the market (an image from Peretz’s childhood), play for Sheyndele and Nosn’s supernatural wedding. The badkhn hopes to frustrate God’s plan by taking the dead from their graves and, in a key mystical image of the new show, reassembling the shards of the glass broken at the wedding.

The familiar plot about thwarted lovers attempting to reunite comes to hold much of the tension and meaning originally created by the sprawl of eighty characters, each proclaiming his or her own conflict (the oppressed worker who died on the job, the poor Jew and the hussar who killed him, etc.). But in straightening out the narrative and performing it totally in English, the new production in some ways resembles the Moscow Yiddish Theater’s more than it fulfills Peretz’s dream of a cryptic Yiddish art. In fact, it was the creators’ intention to make a piece of Jewish art that was not about Jewishness. “The music is totally rooted in Jewish music,” Frank London told me. “The story is a totally Jewish story, the world it’s in is a totally Jewish world, the knowledge you have to have to understand it is a Jewish knowledge, the essential dialectic of the entire work is Jewish. Yet not for one second is what we’re doing about being Jewish. It just is.”

At the turn of the century, Warsaw was the international capital of Yiddish literature, and Peretz sat in the center, writing, teaching classes, encouraging young writers and generally creating a sense of possibility around the future of Yiddish art. Yet the world of Yiddish art was in flux. The failed revolution of 1905 threw many into doubt about what would become of any of the revolutionary movements, both political and artistic. For Peretz and the young artists he inspired, revolutionary art was not necessarily being matched by the creation of revolutionary audiences..."


OK: get your tickets here:  and use code FF20 for 20% off

And check out this trailer for more spooky klezmer goodness:

(as originally seen in Jewish Currents)

(originally appeared in the May-June 2007 issue of Jewish Currents)

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