The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings
A CurtainUp Streaming Feature
By Elyse Sommer
So here, as promised in my last update entry, I am with my critic's hat on to tell you why Unorthodox , besides being a much needed escape from the tension and stress of COVID-19 life, is a powerful example of story telling that is ideal when produced for the multi-episode format popularized by Netflix
Unorthodox is a page to screen version of Deborah Feldman's 2012 amemoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots . Tthe script writers (Anna Winger, Alexa Karolinski, and Daniel Hendler) , have sensitively and most effectively augmented Feldman' s story about Esther "Esty" Shapiro (a stunning star turn for Haas who had a supporting role Shtisel), a young woman who runs away from an unhappy arranged marriage and the constraints of her religious Satmar community.
Director Maria Schrader has let the expanded story unfold in Yiddish, English and German and with scenes thst go back and forth between Esty's past in Williamsburg and her present in Berlin. The result is a moving personal odyssey that imbues Esty's leaving her marriage and rigidly controlled community with a sense of mystery and also has all the elements of a twisty thriller.
No stage adaptation could have given this story the scope of this series. The flashbacks and forwards enrich and clarify the backstory of nineteen-year-old Esty's need to find herself in a world less rigidly ruled than the Brooklyn community in which she was always something of an outsider (her mother left her to be raised by her Bubbe and she took piano lessons from a non-Jewish woman despite the community's allowing musical self expression only to men). What's more, the wonderfully expressive face of Shira Haas's Esty really needs to be seen in the sort of close-up only possible when filmed.
The thriller aspects of the scenario are evident even in the opening episode that shows Esty preparing for and carrying out her escape from Williamsburg. She arrives in Berlin without any skills to support herself and just a little cache of money from the sale of her jewelry. Her physical, emotional and aspirational transformation is brought about by her connecting to a group of music conservatory students from diverse backgrounds and reconnecting to the Berlin based mother she felt abandoned her .
To continue the blending of coming of age and thriller, there's the Brooklyn group's discovery of where Esty went and their plan to bring her back to her husband Yanky Shapiro (Amit Rahay) . Yanky is something of a wishy-washy mama's boy (if he hadn't consulted his mother on his failure to impregnate his bride, the marriage might have been less disastrous) . Therefore they send along his more aggressive cousin Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch).
When the men arrive in Berlin, the action alternates Esty's activities and the men's efforts to find her. The crafty Moishe is the villain of the chase but he too demonstrates the need of all in the community to be accepted in order to benefit from the constant help and support this life entails. It's the reason that. departures like Esty's, and Esty's mother before her, are rare and painful. One of the most memorable flashbacks replays Esty's wedding. Seeing the joy on her face contextualizes the humiliating and painfully dysfunctional year of marriage that follows.
There are many other touching and visually beautiful scenes in each of the 54-minute long episodes. The fact that Esty's search for a more fulfilling life takes her to Germany is especially meaningful since it is in the country where Brooklyn's ultra orthoox lost most of their families and chose to never again trust themselves to be part of a society outside their own.
While this is very much the remarkable Shira Haas's show, the rest of the large cast provides splendid support, as does the entire creative team. Since Haas was a supporting player in Shtisel -- an Israeli film series that became a hit when produced at Netflix, reviewed by me here, and still available. Both rfeature ultra orthodox characters. Both have universally relatable themes. Unorthodox is basically a story of self empowerment, Shtisel 's focus is more on the generational divide.
Finally, be sure to watch the extra background feature in which the creative tesm and actors discuss what went into the show and how it differed from the book. It's fun and informative.
Here's hoping that it will be possible to keep producing high caliber entertainment like this in the post COVID-19 normal.
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4-part mini-series based on Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman
Aziz Deyab as Salim, David Mandelbaum as Zeidy, Delia Mayer as Miriam Shapiro, Felix Mayr as Mikek, Eli Rosen as Rabbi Yossele, Safinaz Sattar as Dasiakkk, Langston Uibel as Azmed, Isabel Schosnig as Nina Decker, Laura Beckner as Vivian Dropkin, Harvey Friedman as Symcha Shapiro, Lenn Kudrjawizki as Igor
Set in United States and Germany, dialogue in English, Yiddish and German
Running time each episode: 54 minutes
reviewed by Elyse Sommer in April 2020
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