I.D. Berkovitch's Under The Cross made its english language premiere this week at the June Havoc Theatre. Produced by New Worlds Theatre Project and directed by David Winitsky, Under The Cross is the story of Moise Ferapontov. A convert to Christianity, Moise (as played by Marcus Naylor) bears the perils that befall a person when he or she deny their true self. I applaud New Worlds Theatre Project for bringing the unknown works of the Yiddish canon to mainstream theatre patrons. However, I felt that this particular production had more heavy-handed moments than it should. While I understand where the Director was going, I felt that his choices did more to obscure the author's intentions than it did to highlight them.
I'll open by saying that New Worlds Founding and Producing Artistic Director, Ellen Perecman created an excellent translation of the work. Admittedly, I don't know Yiddish. Nonetheless, I felt like I could really hear the author's voice coming through the actors' lines. New Worlds mentions in the program a goal to get Berkovitch in the same conversation with such theatre luminaries as Chekhov and Ibsen. If Perecman's translations are consistently used, I can easily see that goal being achieved.
I also really enjoyed the choices of the set, costume, sound and lighting designers. The Under The Cross technical team did a fine job creating a world where nothing is as it seems. Their world did an elegant job heightening the struggles of Moise trying to be something he wasn't.
The acting was disappointingly inconsistent, a shock to me being that this is predominantly an Equity production. There is great passion infused in the literary legacy of the Yiddish Culture. Somewhere it was lost in this particular production. Under The Cross has a cast of consummate professional actors and yet I felt like I was watching several different acting styles at the same time, so at best I have to question the Director's intentions. He obviously wanted this feel and look, but I ultimately missed the point why.
The directing choice that confused me the most was in regard to casting. According to the program, a conscious choice was made to cast African-Americans solely as Jews to emphasize "racial otherness" and to make the "emotional isolation that Moise Ferapontov experiences more palpable." Although the each member of the cast turned in a superb job, this decision did not make the emotional isolation more palpable. It layered in a bunch of 20th and 21st century American issues and completely obscured the Russian-Jewish experience. Isn't highlighting the Jewish experience the entire point of Yiddish Theatre? I completely support and promote color-blind casting, but in the case of this particular show, it should have been across the board.
With all that being said, the women of Under the Cross were exceptionally strong. A stand out for me was Trish McCall (as Rokhl Leye). She gave incredible strength and understated elegance to the role. Ms. McCall did an exceptionally good job of commanding the stage and your attention. My only regret was that she wasn't on stage more.
There were definitely undeniable misses with this show. Nevertheless, if you have ever been interred in Yiddish Theatre, Under The Cross is worth it to check out. The production runs now through June 25th. Tickets are available through www.SmartTix.com.