Bursting with colorful eccentrics and romantic lunacy, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s fiction seems destined for the stage. Yet the best dramatization has been on screen—Paul Mazursky’s Enemies: A Love Story, with the sublime Anjelica Houston capturing the author’s blasted comedy of persevering old-world souls in dizzying post-Holocaust New York. Film may actually be more accommodating of Singer’s episodic style (originally serialized in the Forward, his novels lack the tautness of his best stories). So it was a pleasure to experience the Israeli Gesher Theater’s feverish production of Singer’s The Slave at the Lincoln Center Festival (one of the company’s two Singer offerings, along with the less successful Shosha, performed in Hebrew with simultaneous English translation via headsets). Here was the rare occurrence of a director (Yevgeny Arye) not merely illustrating literary treasure, but re-creating it in living, breathing (at times even panting) forms.
An epic parable on the torturous blessing of love, The Slave is set in pogrom-plagued 17th-century Poland. Jacob is a Jewish teacher imprisoned by Christians in a cowshed, where he’s unabashedly coveted by his master’s daughter Wanda. Naturally (given that it’s a sin for both of them), romantic sparks fly, and before long the two escape to Jacob’s decimated Jewish community (his wife and children have been killed by plundering Cossacks, and the surviving townspeople are struggling to rebuild). Hardly free in the shtetl, the couple contends with prejudice of a less lethal kind. Not able to speak “Jewish,” Wanda pretends to be mute, which provokes the neighboring women to treat her like a treyf barnyard animal. Only in each other’s arms are the newlyweds truly free, poignantly making Singer’s case for love as the highest spiritual attainment.
The Gesher production—sparely appointed, darkly lit, and with a sweeping underscore—derives its power from the sensual beauty of its two leads, Israel Demidov and Yevgenya Dodina. Steeped in a Hieronymus Bosch-like tumult, Jacob and Wanda struggle to outlast the hypocritical forces massed against them. Singer, being Singer, knits comedy into the tragedy—and the staging preserves the humor hidden in even the deepest darkness. Such artistry bridges centuries, intimately rendering this historically remote tale: a love story, and so much more.