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The Essence: A Yiddish Theatre Dim Sum

Jam to Soviet Yiddish Rock! See what happens when you sin with a shiksa! Hear Einstein’s theory debated by imbeciles! Yiddish theatre from High Art to Low Crap. No language skills needed. Guaranteed nostalgia-free. Special Guest Appearance by Jesus Christ. Featuring Lewis Rickman and Yelena Shmulenson.
Allen Lewis Rickman and Yelena Shmulenson — better known as the shtetl couple from the Coen brothers’ Oscar-nominated A Serious Man — will be performing in The Essence: A Yiddish Theatre Dim Sum at this year’s New York International Fringe Festival.
The play, whose cast also includes Broadway veteran Steve Sterner, is an irreverent introduction to all things Yiddish, including theatre, hucksterism, immigration, eccentricities of the language, and the Yiddish New Testament. “This is not a show for senior citizens,” said Rickman, who also wrote and directed. “Our best audiences have been college students, especially gentile ones, who don’t know the language at all. They don’t need to – we use supertitles to translate the Yiddish sections. People who love very traditional Yiddish theatre, on the other hand… they’re not as pleased.” Zalmen Mlotek, artistic director of the 97-year-old Folksbiene Yiddish Theater, evidently agrees; he said older people have been “quite shocked” by the play.
Beyond their work for the Coen brothers, Rickman and Shmulenson are familiar from other appearances on film and television; he, from his work in Barry Levinson’s Emmy-winning You Don’t Know Jack and his recurring role on Boardwalk Empire (Broadway-goers also saw him in last season’s Relatively Speaking); she, from her work in The Good Shepherd and on ABC’s Life On Mars. (She will also be joining the “Boardwalk Empire club”, appearing in Season 3.) Sterner, also the show’s musical director, appeared on Broadway in Oh, Brother and The Sheik Of Avenue B, and is perhaps New York’s best-known silent film accompanist.
Originally presented in 2007 by New York’s New Yiddish Rep, where it played to sold-out houses, The Essence has also been performed at midtown’s CUNY Grad Center, in Amherst, Massachusetts, and in Stockholm, Sweden. The published version of the play appeared in the anthology Yiddishkeit (Abrams 2011, edited by the late Harvey Pekar), where it was very well received.

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