By Peretz Hirschbein; Translated by Ellen Perceman; Directed by Shannon Sindelar
Produced by New Worlds Theatre Project
Off Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 12.21.14
HERE, 145 6th Avenue
by Dave Osmundsen on 12.6.14
Jane Cortney and David Greenspan in On the Other Side of the River. Photo by Hunter Canning.
BOTTOM LINE: A gloomily atmospheric production of a thought-provoking but bleak symbolist drama.
From the very beginning of the New World’s Theatre Project’s production of Peretz Hirschbein’s 1906 drama On the Other Side of the River, the mood is cool and ominous. Patrick Rizzotti’s set, somewhat resembling an ice cave, echos with eerie winds that sound more like cries than forces of nature.
In fact, a major force of nature is what drives this play. Mir’l (Jane Cortney), a young village girl on the cusp of womanhood, has lost both her parents. She lives with her blind grandfather Menashe (David Greenspan) in a cottage along a river. He and her grandmother Yakhne (Christine Siracusa) are the only family she has left. While Yakhne is running errands in the local village, a great storm arrives and causes the river to rise, consuming Mir’l and Menashe and their house. Menashe freezes to death, and Mir’l is met by a Stranger (David Arkema) who promises to keep her warm and bring her life. Mir’l must decide to either stay with her grandfather or return to life with the Stranger.
Playwright Peretz Hirschbein was much more intent on building mood and atmosphere than he was in developing plot or character. Director Shannon Sindelar definitely honors this -- she has created a wonderfully gloomy atmosphere that is capable of both consuming the characters and giving them life. She is well-assisted by Patrick Rizzotti’s aforementioned set, Nick Solymon’s evocative lighting design, and Erik T. Lawson’s brooding soundscape.
Those who admire the sort of atmosphere that can be created through simple stagecraft will appreciate this production. Those who prefer realistic, plot-driven or character-driven theatre probably won’t enjoy this as much. Naturalistic acting and a plot-heavy story isn’t called for in a play like this -- it’s about the mood. It’s also about the symbols. For example, Menashe gives Mir’l an amulet early on in the play and tells her to “hold it close to her heart.” She eventually loses the amulet while she and Menashe are trapped in the river. Another example of symbolism is the title: “On the other side of the river” has both the literal meaning of the opposite side of the river that Mir'l and her Grandfather live on, and Mir’l’s rough journey from girlhood to womanhood. The multiple meaning of these symbols and how they play into the story could be the source of many an essay and/or post-theatre discussion/debate.
The acting, unfortunately, wasn't as convincing as I would like it to have been. I mentioned before that naturalistic acting style isn’t called for in a play like this, but there is room for humanity even in an abstract piece such as this one. There is a well of human emotion boiling under the text's surface that isn’t tapped into through Mirl’s love and dedication to her grandfather, her growing pains, and the confusion she suffers while she’s trapped in the river. The most humanity comes out in Cortney's stunning performance of Mir'l's final monologue. She balances both Mir'l's strong-willed rebellion and her vulnerable fright with force and commitment. If as much time is dedicated to navigating the dynamics between the characters as it is to building the play’s atmosphere, then the rest of On the Other Side of the River could be just as riveting as the final moments of this production are.
In spite of my qualms with this production, New World’s Theatre Project must be commended for their excellent mission of bringing the Yiddish Theatre to a wider audience. Those who are more curious about their mission and the sort of work they do can also log onto their website and read the scripts of multiple Yiddish dramas: newworldsproject.org.
(On the Other Side of the River plays at HERE, 145 6th Avenue, through December 21, 2014. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7PM; Mondays at 7PM; and Sundays at 2PM. Tickets are $18 and are available at ovationtix.com or by calling (212) 352-3101)