THEATER REVIEW: Poignant 'Fiddler on the Roof' proves rich and untraditional
The Jewish community in the village of Anatevka in 1905 is living in a larger world; “the others” — Russian Gentiles — are out there, running the city government, leading the police, making the rules. Jewish participation in those institutions is not very welcome and the Jews in the village are not generally understood by the dominant culture.
The deaf community in Oklahoma City in 2016 is living in a larger world; “the others” —people without hearing limitations — are out there, running the various levels of government, enforcing laws, etc. Deaf culture is not always recognized, often threatened by intense discrimination, and hearing-impaired people often struggle to be heard.
Director Michael Baron has integrated these two worlds in a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” that entertains as it educates. Two of the cast are deaf actors, and the entire cast uses American Sign Language (ASL) at various times to great theatrical effect; choreographer Brian J. Marcum blends the language into the movement of the story. The tale of the Jewish community of Anatevka is told through the experiences of a similar community among us today, and the audience gets at least one brief window into the lives of both.
The irony of the word “audience” is not lost here; the word derives from a Latin root that means to hear; an audience is composed of people who hear. At some point it will occur that the actors who are so perfectly in sync with one another are not all following the music; some of them cannot hear the music. There are other talents and competences in play.
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Baron and his team have integrated the deaf and hearing, the signing and the singing actors into a seamless whole that is believable and so natural as to seem inevitable. The work of the performers is supported and enhanced by the technical team: sets, sound, lights and costumes.
As Tevye, the milkman who brings dairy to his fellow Jews, Adam Heller settled into the part with a comfort that is a little bit charming and a little bit welcoming, letting us into Tevye’s life as he relaxed into his home and his family. As the story progresses and Tevye’s comfort is challenged, Heller took us with us through his struggles.
Elin Bhaird gave us a sharp and feisty Golde, the woman who creates the home into which Tevye can sink back at the end of the day. Pushy, direct, will a full rich voice that still managed to convey the edges of Golde’s life, Bhaird’s performance was a solid center of the family.
Tevye and Golde’s three older daughters, Tzeitel (Cora Grace Winstead); Hodel (Sandra Mae Frank, voiced by Madeline Dannenberg); and Chava (Jessica Martens) drive the story by pushing the edges of tradition. Tzeitel wants to marry a poor man rather than the wealthy one presented to her; Hodel wants to marry a student/activist who is a stranger to the town; and Chava wants to marry outside the faith of her family. Each daughter has a particular character that makes the choices clear and believable, and each actress delivered her role beautifully. Winstead’s Tzeitel is determined and in love and yet still very traditional; Frank’s Hodel was persistent and adventurous beyond her father’s comfort zone; and Martens offered a Chava who, studious and a little shy, nevertheless steps across a chasm that threatens to dissolve her family entirely.
Tzeitel’s choice lights on the poor tailor Motel, played with delightfully gallant timidity by Matthew Alvin Brown. Hodel’s student/activist from Kiev, Perchik, was performed with audacious humor by Christopher Tester and voiced by Jeremy Brown. As Chava’s choice, a Russian soldier named Fyedka, Andrew Keeler was the epitome of privilege and dominant culture trying to learn to be less of both.
The cast is large, each actor well-suited to the role, and the performances are individually well crafted and moving. Of particular note are Brenda Williams as Yente and Chad Anderson as the Rabbi. The presence of an additional language (ASL is not the same as “English”) layers the conflict between the Jews in their enclave and the dominant Russians—the Jews often use ASL to speak to the deaf characters, and the Russians do not.
“Fiddler on the Roof” is a richly layered show in any case; a musical about an oppressed people struggling to find a place in the world can apply to many peoples and situations, and unfortunately it does not seem to go out of date. By adding the strangeness and physicality of ASL, Baron and his cast have added another level to an already profound show.
“Fiddler on the Roof” is at the Civic Center through this weekend, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. for the Saturday matinee. Go to http://lyrictheatreokc.com or call (405) 524-9312 to buy tickets.