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Friday, December 6, 2013

DVD Review: Romeo And Juliet In Yiddish

It’s wonderful that people are still finding new ways of approaching Shakespeare and individual plays. These works will never be exhausted of their potential. Take Romeo And Juliet, for example. It’s been done so many times, in so many ways, and yet a film like Romeo And Juliet In Yiddish comes along with a somewhat new angle. So we are continually looking at these plays anew.

First off, I should make it clear that Romeo And Juliet In Yiddish is not simply the play performed in Yiddish. In fact, a good deal of this film is in English. It’s about a woman named Ava (played by writer/director Eve Annenberg) who, working on her Master’s Degree, is assigned the project of putting together Romeo And Juliet in Yiddish. She is reluctant, suggesting Dutch instead. She’s told, “You don’t have to translate it. Just contemporize it.” Then: “Do you know that most Yiddish-speaking young people today never heard of William Shakespeare?...You’re Jewish, you should like this. Seriously, Ava, this is the world’s greatest love story. Enjoy it. Imagine yourself in it.

And she does imagine herself in it. Eve’s character is a nurse, and so naturally takes on the Nurse character from the play. Interestingly, Eve herself has worked as nurse, so there is a wonderful blending of reality and fiction, and then of course there is the play within the film. Other actors in the film have characters with their own names, which also helps to blur the line between fiction and reality. In some ways, it has sort of a documentary approach.

Of course, I do have to question the play being called “the world’s greatest love story.” Don’t get me wrong: I love this play. But is it really such a great love story? After all, Romeo is completely gaga about another girl at the beginning, one he instantly forgets when he meets another young girl, Juliet, showing a sort of fickleness at least on his part. And they’re only together very briefly. Is it really love, or simply infatuation? After all, they’re both teenagers, Juliet not even yet fourteen. Clearly, they’re very horny.

Anyway, Romeo And Juliet In Yiddish begins with two sisters, Faigie and Rivke. Faigie is supposed to get married. Rivke says she wants her to get married, so that she can then get her room. Faigie throws a copy of Romeo And Juliet at her (the Folger version, for those interested), and Rivke says, “You’re not supposed to be reading this.”

I know nothing about the Orthodox religion, but apparently young people within that religion are taught very little about mainstream literature. That’s sort of one of the points of the film, as three young men arrive to help Ava create the Yiddish version (as her Yiddish isn’t very strong) and have never heard of the play. So as they help Ava translate, Ava helps them learn about Shakespeare. And the men begin to imagine themselves in certain roles.

And so the film goes back and forth between the play as these people are imagining and creating it (in Yiddish), and their lives as they do so (mostly in English).  The version they’re creating takes place in contemporary New York, and the two houses are two different groups of Orthodox Jews – the Satmer (who have side curls) and the Chabad (who do not have side curls). Ava, speaking for many of us watching the film, voices surprise that the Orthodox actually do fight among themselves.

There is another young character that Ava meets in the hospital where she works. He talks of magic and easily convinces her to give him the keys to her apartment because he’s been released from the hospital and has nowhere else to go. He explains to us, “Hospitality is required.” His character is the one I have the most trouble with. Every once in a while magic sparkles fly from his fingers, but their effect is unclear, as are his intentions. Often his magic then leads the film into the play, but not always. His character is one of the weaknesses of the film.

An element that stands out is that certain Yiddish words and phrases are defined on screen throughout the film. Very early in the film, when Ava says to the young men that she’d been told they’d been “out” for a while, on screen we get this message: “Out: Expelled or absconded from the Ultra Orthodox Community.” This and other messages (“Nifter: dead”) are like little lessons.

The film gives us small pieces of most of the scenes from the play (though cutting some scenes entirely, such as Act II Scene iv, which is a shame, for I love that scene). The scene where Romeo and Juliet meet has a definite dreamlike quality, which is interesting. Juliet says only “My only love sprung from my only hate” before the Nurse asks, “What’s this? What’s this?” Juliet answers, “A rhyme I learned.” But since she spoke only the first of the four lines, there is no rhyme. For the balcony scene (Act II Scene i), Juliet is at the window by a fire escape. She says, “Romeo, Romeo. It had to be ‘Romeo?’” It seems like she’s looking down at Romeo early in the scene before she should be aware of his presence, which might be confusing for those unfamiliar with the play. The scene is interrupted, going back to the young men, with one of them asking, “Why doesn’t she want him to be like the moon? Because it gets really big only once a month?” It’s kind of a funny joke, but works only by cutting Juliet’s next line, which of course answers his very question. So it’s a bit of cheating, really, doing that joke.

Obviously, changes are made to the play. For example, we actually see the wedding scene, and there are others present for it. And there is the breaking of the glass and other traditional Jewish elements. Some of that is interesting. The Friar becomes Rabbi, and so on. And the Queen Mab speech is given as a sort of rap. However, this film messes around with the ending of the play, which is taking a big chance, and comes off as rather silly.

The biggest problem with the film is the acting. At one point (after the Tybalt/Mercutio fight) two of the boys suddenly have to leave, and they tell Ava no one cares about Shakespeare in Yiddish anyway. She tells them, “You’re so fucking Shakespeare, you have one foot in the sixteenth century.” The problem is that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. She says, “You’re such passionate people,” but we haven’t seen that at all from them. The acting is in fact very flat. They don’t seem quite invested or emotionally involved. Certainly, that’s in part because of the piecemeal approach to the play. And it also may be partly a comment on Orthodox beliefs and demeanor. One of the men keeps saying he doesn’t believe in love. How can you act the part of Romeo if you don’t believe in love? So is it that the characters are weak actors (because of their not believing in love, for example)? Or are the actors themselves weak? Because even when telling Mercutio, “Courage, man. It cannot be deep” (instead of “the hurt cannot be much”), he states it plainly, casually. And when he challenges Tybalt, the challenge is given without any emotion.

Still, there are lots of good moments, and some honest laughs as well. Perhaps my favorite line from the film is this: “I’m not sure what the problem is, but I’m sure it doesn’t exist.” That’s spoken by a character named Isaac in the first hospital scene.

Romeo And Juliet In Yiddish was written and directed by Eve Annenberg. It stars Eve Annenberg, Lazer Weiss, Melissa Weisz, Mendy Zafir, Joel “Bubbles” Weiss, Josef Friedman, and Isaac Schoenfeld. It was released on DVD on November 26, 2013.

(Note: For a more thorough review regarding how this film uses and changes the play itself, see my review in Mostly Shakespeare. But please be warned, that review contains spoilers.)

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