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A CurtainUp Review
Gimpel Tam
It is better to be a fool all your days than for one hour to be evil..—Der Rebbe
Gimpel Tam
Adam Shapiro in Gimpel Tam
(Photo: Michael Priest)
á . Isaac Bashevis Singer first published "Gimpel Tam,"> or "Gimpel the Fool," in the Yiddish Forward in 1945. At that time Europe's Jewish population had been decimated, American Jews were quickly becoming assimilated and the state of Israel had not yet been established.

The future of Jews and Yiddish did not look bright. But the short story, the tale of a simple man who is betrayed by an unfaithful wife and scorned by the community, is both sad and hopeful. Gimpel, we are led to believe, will have a better time in heaven than he did on earth.

Singer clearly either knew or intuited that the root of the English word "silly" is the German "selig," or sacred. In this gentle fable, it is the kind, generous and forgiving fool who exhibits the spiritual qualities that could, if given the chance, make this world a better place. In fact, although Saul Bellow, in his well-known translation, renders "tam" as "fool," Moshe Yassur, director and adaptor of The National Yiddish Theatre, Folksbeine's dramatization of the story, maintains that "tam" in Hebrew and Yiddish actually means "simple, na´ve and sometimes even perfect, whole. . ." It is quite evident that Yassur had this in mind when directing Gimpel Tam.

The Folksbiene production incorporates a score by the young Romanian composer, Radu Captari. The songs, mostly in the traditional Klezmer minor key, are sentimental, sad and wise. Their titles tell it all: "No One Has All Virtues,""If the Rambam Says It's Kosher," "As the Sun Sets."

Adam Shapiro is an engaging and believable Gimpel with a rich voice and warm personality that makes a virtue of simple-mindedness. Elke, the sluttish young woman who is both his downfall and his salvation, is played by the feisty Daniella Rabbani, "a proud graduate of the Stella Adler Studio/NYU Tisch." Gimpel Tam; marks Rabbani's off Broadway debut, and it is indeed an auspicious beginning.

Gimpel repeatedly resists the temptation to abandon his wife and the children she has with various lovers. He even refuses to be enticed by the devil into poisoning his wife and the entire community. His only reward is more infidelity and Elke's blatant lies and counter-accusations.

Harry Peerce is notable as the conniving shadkhn (matchmaker), who makes the shady arrangements for Gimpel's marriage to the very pregnant Elke. And I.W. "Itzy" Firestone ably takes over the two principal good-guy parts, Gimpel's beloved Zeyde (grandfather) and the wise and exceedingly flexible Rebbe.

Roger Hanna's set is minimal but effective. A bed, a chair, a baker's oven in which Gimpel (who has become a baker on the advice of his Zeyde) makes the challah he offers Elke to win her hand, all indicate the poverty of many European Jews. The line of tombstone at the back of the stage is both a somber foreshadowing and a reminder of life's brevity and the tragedy that often visited Jews in European villages.

With dwindling numbers of Yiddish speakers but growing numbers of people interested in Yiddish and Yiddish themes, Folksbiene keeps afloat with the aid of supertitles and, in some cases, work that incorporates large blocks of English. But Folksbiene is more than an institution dedicated to preserving the past. Productions such as Gimpel Tam are worthy artistic endeavor in their own right.

You don't have to understand Yiddish, have an interest in Yiddishkeit or even be Jewish to enjoy Gimpel Tam. All you need is a willingness to explore the good and evil that are forever competing with each other to take possession of the human soul, in a ale filled with humor and sorrow.

Gimpel Tam
By Isaac Bashevis Singer
Adapted and Directed by Radu Captari
Music by Radu Captari
Musical Direction by Zalman Mlotek
Cast: Adam Shapiro (Gimpel), Jonathan Brody (Dayan, Velvl), Ilan Kwittken (Berele, Borekh), Nicole Raphael (Surkele, Rabbi's daughter), Ethan Sher (Fayvl, Gezel), Richard Kass (Yeshive Bokher, Yankl), I.W.. "Itzy" Firestone, (Zeyde, Der Rebbe), Henry Peerce (Shadkhn, Badkhn), Daniella Rabbani (Elke), Amy Goldstein (Basye, Mamma), Sheila Rubell (Rivke-Rokhl), Lisa Fishman (Leyele), Motl Didner (Der Shotn) Scenic & Lighting Design: Roger Manna
Costume Design: Gail Cooper-Hecht
Sound Design: Don Jacobs
Choreography: Inka Justin
Running Time: 90 minutes
Folksbiene at the JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Avenue From 11/23/08; closing 12/28/08.
Wednesdays and Thursdays at 2pm & 8pm, Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm & 6pm.
Tickets: $55 and $45
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons
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