In October 2013, New Yiddish Rep teamed up with the Castillo Theatre to present the first-ever Yiddish version of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (Vartn af Godot) in honor of the play’s sixtieth anniversary. New Yiddish Rep has now brought it back for an encore run at the Theater at the 14th Street Y, shedding new light on the oft-produced masterwork about the futility of human existence. I’ve recently seen it in English with septuagenarians Sir Patrick Stewart as Vladimir (Didi) and Sir Ian McKellen as Estragon (Gogo) on Broadway and with thirtysomething Irish actors Marty Rea as Didi and Aaron Monaghan as Gogo in the Druid’s adaptation at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival. I heard Bill Irwin discuss the play at length in his one-man presentation On Beckett last year at the Irish Rep. But none of that prepared me for the NYR version, in which Beckett’s existential antiheroes Vladimir and Estragon are portrayed as a pair of alter kockers, heavily bearded old Jewish men complaining about life. Eli Rosen, a late replacement for Rafael Goldwaser, is the tall, thinner Vladimir, while company cofounder and artistic director David Mandelbaum reprises his 2013 role as the short and stout Estragon in this translation by Shane Baker (who played Didi in 2013), directed by Ronit Muszkablit.
“Nothing to be done,” Estragon says at the beginning, and such desultory phrases, so familiar to Beckett enthusiasts, have an astonishing resonance in Yiddish, as if the old man with the thick accent is carrying the burden of his people’s legacy. (English surtitles are crookedly projected on crooked wood at the back of the stage.) Later, Vladimir asks, “Was I sleeping, while the others suffered?” The two men are waiting for someone named Godot to arrive, but they don’t know why. While wandering around the small, rectangular space — which features a collection of junk that has been organized into a place to sit, along with a dilapidated backyard umbrella serving as a tree, bare save for a few dead leaves and some string (the set designer is George Xenos) — they talk about carrots, body odor, suicide, and memory. They also bring up Jesus, the Bible, repentance, the Dead Sea, crucifixion, and other religious topics that take on sometimes startling connotations when coming from Jews. For example, several references, including to a charnel-house, a camp, the loss of basic human rights, and skeletons and corpses, recalled the Holocaust, something that did not leap out at me when watching other productions or reading the play. And Pozzo’s (Gera Sandler) treatment of Lucky (Richard Saudek) evokes both anti-Semitism and the enslavement of the Jews. Beckett was not about to address such direct interpretations, but he did write Godot in the aftermath of WWII, during which he was part of the French Resistance and at one point escaped the Gestapo. So it’s not far-fetched to believe the Holocaust was on his mind to some degree while writing the play (in French), although in no way am I asserting that’s what it is specifically about.
The NYR adaptation moves too slowly, and the slapstick — Beckett includes moments of vaudeville-like physical comedy, inspired by his love of Laurel and Hardy — is tentative and ineffective, which is unfortunate, since so much of the rest of the production is solid and engaging. Rosen and Mandelbaum, who both appeared in NYR’s God of Vengeance and Awake and Sing! (among others), make a lovely pair — it’s easy to believe that the characters have been waiting for the mysterious Godot for a long, long time, arguing over who is suffering more. Saudek (Eager to Lose, Balls) excels as Lucky, delivering the protracted stream-of-consciousness monologue in a breathless fury that sounds sensational in Yiddish. And through it all is an unmistakable Jewishness, as if Godot is coming to guide Gogo and Didi to freedom in Israel, which had become a state only a few months before Beckett began work on the play. “I remember the maps of the Holy Land. Coloured they were. Very pretty,” Estragon tells Vladimir, continuing, “The Dead Sea was pale blue. The very look of it made me thirsty. That’s where we’ll go, I used to say, that’s where we’ll go for our honeymoon. We’ll swim. We’ll be happy.” Vartn af Godot will continue to bring happiness to theatergoers of all religious — or nonreligious — persuasions at the 14th Street Y through January 27 as part of the institution’s Season of War + Peace. (Fans of Yiddish theater should also check out the return of Tevye Served Raw at the Playroom Theater and the much-deserved extension of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish at Stage 42.)
Who: Richard Pettibone and Glenn Fuhrman
What: Artist talk
Where: The FLAG Art Foundation, 545 West 25th St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves., ninth floor, 212-206-0220
When: Thursday, January 17, free with RSVP, 6:00
Why: Eighty-one-year-old American Pop and Appropriation artist Richard Pettibone will be at FLAG in Chelsea on January 17 for an artist talk with gallery founder Glenn Fuhrman, focusing on Pettibone’s exhibit “Endless Variation,” which runs through Saturday. The show features work from throughout Pettibone’s career, from 1964 to 2018, including his miniature versions of iconic masterpieces by such artists as Marcel Duchamp, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol; his “combine” collages; his re-creations of Warhol’s soup cans; and a series of self-portraits. Admission is free with advance RSVP.
235 Bowery at Prince St.
Tuesday through Sunday through January 20, $12-$18
I fondly recall being blown away in 2004 by “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida: Angus Fairhurst, Damien Hirst & Sarah Lucas” at the Tate Britain, a terrific survey of three key Young British Artists who began making their mark in the late 1980s. I had previously been introduced to their work, and that of many other YBAs, in the Brooklyn Museum’s 1999 “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection,” which became (in)famous when New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani threatened to close it, offended because Chris Ofili’s “Holy Virgin Mary” contained elephant dung. Giuliani is also unlikely to be a fan of “Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel,” the New Museum’s revelatory first American retrospective of the work of the London-born artist who boldly tells it like it is through photography, sculpture, video, collage, and installation.
The show at the New Museum, on view through January 20, highlights Lucas’s DIY aesthetic, her sly sense of humor, and her innate instincts to take on the status quo — particularly the patriarchy, traditional notions of domesticity, and misogyny — repurposing such found materials as furniture, cigarettes, tabloid articles, clothing, and cars along with numerous photos of herself, always shot by someone else, usually her partner at the time. But despite the apparent socioeconomic observations and art-historical references in her work, she is not merely trying to score political or artistic points as some kind of artivist. “I don’t think I make things for a specific type of public,” she tells New Museum artistic director Massimiliano Gioni in the catalog interview “It’s Raining Stones.” She continues, “I like to be as broad as possible. I’m not anti-intellectual or anything; I just think things can operate on different levels. I want to make works that anybody can relate to, not only the people from the art world, but also the ordinary man or woman on the street, from the particular class I came from.” Lucas left home at sixteen, spent time as a squatter, and eventually went to art school, but not as fulfillment of some lifelong bourgeois dream. Spread across three floors and the lobby, the retrospective celebrates her uniquely rowdy oeuvre, which can be as poignant and powerful as it is hysterical and in-your-face.
Facing the elevator on the fourth floor is “Divine,” a giant photograph, turned into wallpaper, of a tough-looking Lucas wearing boots, jeans, a T-shirt, and leather jacket, sitting on steps that seem to come from nowhere, her legs spread-eagled. She is staring down at us, asserting her laid-back authority. On the adjoining wall to her left is “Christ You Know It Ain’t Easy,” a large depiction of Jesus, covered neatly in cigarettes, on a red-painted cross; to Lucas’s right is “Chicken Knickers,” a photograph of the artist from above her knees to below her chest, wearing a raw chicken over her underwear. On the floor are “This Jaguar’s Going to Heaven,” a burned car sliced in two, and “Priapos” (the God of Fertility) and “Eros” (the God of Love), a pair of huge concrete phalluses balancing on crushed cars. Lucas is joyfully equating sex and mortality, specifically male death, since the Jaguar can be considered a prestige purchase of wealthy men, while also aligning the artist as a godlike figure. But she brings it all back down to earth in a far corner, where her deliciously wicked Sausage Film shows her carefully slicing and eating a sausage served to her by her partner at the time, artist Gary Hume. Like her photo on the second floor, “Eating a Banana,” in which she is doing just that, Lucas has tons of fun deconstructing male signifiers while taking possession of the gaze, the artist knowingly looking directly at the viewer.
On the third floor, “One Thousand Eggs: For Women” is a long wall onto which, last September 13, a select group of women threw eggs, taking back their reproductive rights and control of their bodies. In the same room is a collection of Lucas’s “NUDS” sculptures, twisted, sometimes erotic shapes made either of tights, fluff, and wire or bronze on pedestals. “They happened very naturally, all different,” Lucas explains on the label about making them with her current boyfriend, Julian Simmons. “Slightly lewd in their nakedness. We named them ‘cuddle friends,’ after ourselves. Something about their babylike quality got me thinking about my relationship with my mum. That’s where ‘nuds’ came from. She called being naked ‘in the nuddy.’ She also called sadists ‘saddists.’ Not sure about the spelling, but ‘sad’ is the important bit. True, I think.”
In another room on the third floor, painted yellow, is a series of plaster sculptures of the bottom half of women’s bodies sitting on a chair, lying on a table, or kneeling over a toilet, a cigarette placed in a key part, with such names as “Yoko,” “Michele,” and “Sadie.” A black bronze feline, “Tit-Cat Up,” stands atop “Washing Machine Fried Egg (Electrolux),” a washing machine painted so its front looks like an egg yolk. And in the video Egg Massage, Lucas cracks eggs over Simmons’s naked body and rubs them into him, emphasizing man’s inability to conceive. She doesn’t necessarily set out to be so direct. In a wall label, Lucas explains, “It’s happened time and time again that some random spur-of-the-moment idea or juxtaposition has proved more fruitful than laborious projects I may have been working on — although it has to be said that these spontaneous notions could have been a reaction to, and relief from, the labor or high-mindedness I was engaged in. Conclusion: earnestness and hard work are to be regarded with suspicion.”
The second floor is chock full of objects that are as engaging as they are unsubtle. “The Old Couple” consists of two wooden chairs, one with an erect phallus on it, the other false teeth. The titular piece, “Au Naturel,” is a cruddy mattress with melons, oranges, a cucumber, and a bucket on it, forming male and female sexual organs. In the R-print “Got a Salmon on #3,” Lucas is photographed with a huge salmon over her left shoulder, not about to swim upstream to spawn. (Lucas does not have children.) Lucas created “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” for the Freud Museum, using a mattress, a hanger, a concrete coffin, lightbulbs, a bucket, and a neon tube, offering a psychiatric look at sex and death. There are also skulls; phalluses made out of cigarettes and beer cans; and several toilets and photos of toilets, inside of one featuring the question “Is suicide genetic?” The centerpiece is “Bunny Gets Snookered,” a collection of eight of her soft bunny sculptures on chairs on and around a pool table, each bunny — a twist on the Playboy bunny? — the color of one of the snooker balls, playing off the double meaning of “getting snookered” in regard here to a predominantly male sport.
In her exhibition catalog essay “No Excuses,” writer and scholar Maggie Nelson notes, “I so value this New Museum retrospective, as it sidesteps the narrative of the mellowing of an angry, feral soul — that ‘calming down’ many inexplicably wish on our most crackling messengers — and instead allows us the time and space to look at the expanse of what Lucas has been doing from the start: making objects that ‘look fucking good’ out of a shape-shifting devotion to questions of anatomy, presence, ambivalence, rudeness, and humor.” I so value this retrospective as well, a seriocomic exploration of the gender and power dynamic, objectification, and traditional representation by an artist who is finally getting her due here in America.
The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between between Ninth & Tenth Aves.
Through January 12
Amy Heckerling’s eagerly anticipated musical adaptation of her 1995 hit comedy, Clueless, is, well, I hate to say, pretty clueless. The sold-out New Group production, which closes tonight at the Signature Center, tries to recapture the hip success of the film, a contemporary retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma, but instead it is a dreary, cliché-ridden mess that fails to provide the necessary pizzazz that energized, for example, Tina Fey’s Broadway musical version of her 2004 movie, Mean Girls. Heckerling, whose directorial debut was another teen giant, Fast Times at Ridgmont High (she’s also made several films in the Look Who’s Talking series and the 2000 disappointment Loser), brings back the whole gang for the musical, centered around superficial fashion-plate Cher (Dove Cameron), who decides to become a matchmaker at posh Beverly Hills High with her bestie, Dionne (Zurin Villanueva), starting with the seemingly implacable Mr. Hall (Chris Hoch) and the mousey Mrs. Geist (Megan Sikora).
Cher, whose father, Mel (Chris Hoch), is a master litigator and whose former stepbrother, Josh (Dave Thomas Brown), is considering law as a career as well, tries her negotiating skills to get better grades from several teachers while also taking on scruffy new student Tai (Ephie Aardema) as a project. Tai is interested in stoner Travis (Will Connolly), but Cher wants to see her with stud muffin Elton (Brett Thiele). Cher herself falls hard for hot new guy Christian (Justin Mortelliti); Dionne, however, is stuck with her longtime boyfriend, Murray (Gilbert L. Bailey II), who doesn’t exactly treat her right. Also making appearances are such peripheral characters from the film as gym teacher Ms. Stoeger (Sikora), stuck-up plastic surgery lover Amber (Tessa Grady), students Summer (Talya Groves) and Sean (Darius Jordan Lee), an unfortunate driving instructor (Hoch), and Cher’s maid, Lucy (Danielle Marie Gonzalez). Passing references to contemporary political correctness are scattered throughout the ragged narrative, accompanied by uninspired projections. (Did they spell “Goverment” that way on purpose, or is it a mistake they never fixed?)
The cast never comes together to form a cohesive whole the way the film actors did; of course, the movie was spoiled with Alicia Silverstone, Stacey Dash, Brittany Murphy, Paul Rudd, Dan Hedaya, Wallace Shawn, Julie Brown, Donald Faison, Breckin Meyer, and Jeremy Sisto. Heckerling, who wrote the book, and director Kristin Hanggi can’t achieve any flow, while Kelly Devine’s choreography is occasionally fun but mostly unmemorable. Amy Clark’s costumes are fashionably clever, even making their way into Beowulf Boritt’s set design. The real problem, however, lies in the music and lyrics. Heckerling takes ’90s favorites by Ace of Base, the Spin Doctors, TLC, Des’ree, Michael Bolton, and others and rewrites the lyrics to match the story, but the new words fail to ignite, too often coming off as silly and trite or overly gimmicky. For example, MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” is turned into “She Can’t Hit This,” as the female students struggle to play tennis in gym class. (“I-I-I-I hate P.E. / [It’s] so lame / I’m gonna say I got menstrual pain,” Dionne sings.)
Two songs that were featured in the movie show up, Jill Sobule’s “Supermodel” (with an added reference to Mean Girls) and the Muffs’ version of Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America,” but the latter feels like it came right out of Rock of Ages, which Hanggi directed and Devine choreographed. Reviving Austen’s classic jewel of a story about a matchmaker whose innocent arrogance requires a comeuppance, a young woman who sees all but can’t see herself, is never a bad idea, but in this case the ’90s setting for that gem just seems dated and uninspired. Perhaps that’s what’s just not right about Clueless the Musical; it’s too much of a paint-by-numbers production, with little originality or uniqueness. It’s staged so enthusiastically that you want to love it — Cameron’s nonstop energy is reminiscent of a young Kristin Chenoweth — but it continually lets you down, much like many kids’ high school experience.
MINOR CHARACTER: SIX TRANSLATIONS OF UNCLE VANYA AT THE SAME TIME
Martinson Hall, the Public Theater
425 Lafayette St. at Astor P.
January 11-13, $30
“Everyone’s a freak,” Astrov declares in Minor Character, New Saloon’s ingenious, outrageously entertaining adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s 1898 play, Uncle Vanya. But the freakiest thing is the play itself, a mash-up of six different translations, by Marian Fell, Laurence Senelick, Paul Schmidt, Carol Rocamora, company cofounder Milo Cramer, and, perhaps most profoundly, Google Translate. The result is an exhilarating procession of unpredictable language; sometimes the dialogue, performed by an outstanding cast, takes one line from one translation, the next from another, etc. But at other times a line is repeated in up to six different phrasings, highlighting the subtle and extreme ways translations differ from one another — and ultimately, of course, how different communication itself can be. For example, in his opening monologue Astrov says, “I’m over-worked, Nanny. I work too hard, Nanny. I’ve been working too hard, Nanny old girl. And I’m bored. Life is boring, it’s stupid, it stinks, boring, stupid, squalid, dreary, silly, filthy. . . . It drags you down, this life.”
This version of the play, which lends itself to reinterpretation (see Louis Malle’s film Vanya on 42nd St., Sally Burgess’s opera Sonya’s Story, and Markus Wessendorf’s theater piece Uncle Vanya and Zombies; Chekhov himself revised it from a previous work of his, The Wood Demon), stands in stark contrast to the recent Hunter Theater Project version, which featured a carefully streamlined translation by Richard Nelson with Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, emphasizing characters and relationships over time, place, and situation. New Saloon doesn’t streamline as much as explode the play: Most characters are portrayed by three actors at a time regardless of gender, race, or age, and each character is indicated by a distinctive piece of clothing (a mink wrap, a bow, a vest; the costumes are by Emily Oliveira), so at certain moments what seems to be a conversation is just the same character speaking, with the words coming out of three different actors’ mouths in deliciously mannered deliveries that often emphasize the wrong syllables for added effect — just as translations often just miss the beat and rhythm of the original. But none of this is done to confuse the audience; instead, it enlivens the theater — in this case, the Public’s Martinson Hall, where the work continues through January 13 as part of the experimental Under the Radar Festival. The specifics of the plot, complete with gleeful anachronisms, are not always easy to follow, but what happens is more than clear enough; of course, it helps if you are familiar with the story. Bonus kudos go out to director and company cofounder Morgan Green, who has a firm grasp of the festivities, and dramaturg Elliot B. Quick, who must have been one busy fella.
A group of friends and relatives have come together at a country estate owned by a wheelchair-bound elderly professor with a much younger wife, Yelena. The estate is run by the unhappy, disgruntled Vanya and the professor’s daughter from his first marriage, the mousey Sonya, with help from Vanya’s mother, Maria, and a nurse, Marina. Also on hand are the local doctor, Astrov, who has the hots for Yelena, and neighboring landowner Waffles. The characters — wonderfully portrayed by a rotating cast consisting of Cramer, Ron Domingo, Rona Figueroa, Fernando Gonzalez, David Greenspan, LaToya Lewis, Caitlin Morris, and company cofounder Madeline Wise — discuss life, love, and the pursuit of happiness. Although there’s not a whole lot of joy in store for most of these folks, there is a whole lot of fun for audiences, who are not likely to find the show — which has been “condensed and expanded” from the 2016 iteration presented at the Invisible Dog — stupid, boring, squalid, dreary, silly, or filthy.
Arts + Ideas
Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan
334 Amsterdam Ave. at West 76th St.
Thursday, January 31, $25, 7:00
I had the privilege of seeing Joshua Harmon’s wonderful Significant Other both off Broadway at the Laura Pels Theatre in 2015 as well as on Broadway at the Booth in 2017, completely falling for this tale of four friends searching for love in New York City and beyond. The Roundabout production had an undeserved short run on Broadway, but it’s being brought back for a special one-night-only staged reading on January 31 at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, benefiting the institution’s “Out at the J” LGBTQIA programming. SpongeBob SquarePants himself, Tony nominee Ethan Slater, will play Jordan, with Midori Francis as Laura, Latoya Edwards as Vanessa, Cathryn Wake as Kiki, Kathryn Kates as Helene, and Isaac Powell as Zach, Evan, and Roger. (The casting of the actor who will play Will, Conrad, and Tony is TBD.) Rising star Harmon has also written Skintight, Admissions, and Bad Jews, so his career is off to a rousing start. Tickets for the Arts + Ideas event, which is directed by Daniella Caggiano and produced by Rachel Kunstadt, are only twenty-five dollars and go to a great cause, so you can’t go wrong with this special evening, part of the JCC’s Arts + Ideas initiative.
A TRAMWAY IN JERUSALEM (Amos Gitai, 2018)
Walter Reade Theater, Film Society of Lincoln Center
165 West 65th St. between Broadway & Amsterdam Aves.
Saturday, January 12, 7:00, and Sunday, January 13, 3:45
Festival runs January 9-22
Israeli auteur Amos Gitai makes a subtle plea for peace and equality in A Tramway in Jerusalem, having its US premiere January 12-13 at the New York Jewish Film Festival. The ninety-four-minute movie consists of a series of scenes shot along Jerusalem’s Light Rail Red Line, a tram shuttling passengers between the northeast and the southwest, stopping in such locations as Beit Hanina, Shu’afat, Ammunition Hill, Damascus Gate, Jaffa, and the Central Bus Station. The tram is a place where men, women, and children of all religious denominations, races, genders, classes, and nationalities exist on the same level, paying the same fare, no one receiving priority treatment as the tram moves from Palestinian to Israeli neighborhoods, from day into night. In the scripted Israeli-French coproduction, Gitai and cowriter Marie-Jose Sanselme create humorous, poignant, and occasionally cringeworthy scenarios featuring approximately three dozen actors, many of whom have appeared in such previous Gitai works as Kadosh, Kippur, Free Zone, and Kedma. Each scene is shot continuously by cinematographer Eric Gautier, with no cuts, essentially making the viewer a passenger on the tram, watching the goings-on in real time.
The film opens with Israeli vocalist Noa (Achinoam Nini) singing the Hebrew song “Etz Chayim” (“The Tree of Life”) in extreme closeup as she looks out the window of the tram, outlining Gitai’s purpose. “It is a tree of life for those who cling to it / and those who uphold it are happy / Its ways are pleasant / and all of its paths peaceful,” she sings in Hebrew. A group of Orthodox men enthusiastically chants prayer and song, declaring, “The world is a very narrow bridge / But what’s really important / is not to be afraid / not afraid at all.” The new coach of a youth soccer team can’t get a word in edgewise as the manager hogs the spotlight with a reporter. A Muslim man complains about the Oslo Accords. A woman speaks about very intimate personal matters with a friend. A priest (Italian actor and director Pippo Delbono) mumbles about love and freedom. A man (French star Mathieu Amalric) and his son (Pierre Amalric) watch a strumming musician; later, the man reads passages Gustave Flaubert wrote about his journey to Israel with Maxime Du Camp, such as the following: “Jerusalem feels like a fortified mass grave, where old religions are silently rotting.” A security guard wanders through the tram, a reminder of the nation’s ills and ever-present dangers, particularly on public transportation. An ugly scene between a husband and wife about an affair is one of several moments that feel too random and out of place. It is all brought together smoothly by editor Yuval Orr and an evocative score by Louis Sclavis and Alex Claude, with each section separated by a black screen imprinted with the time of day (but not chronological). To avoid getting too claustrophobic, Gitai occasionally films outside the train, but only on the platform.
Gitai made A Tramway in Jerusalem on board a regularly scheduled tram, taking up two cars with the rail’s permission, although he did not get official government consent, partially because he has been openly critical of the current administration and Minister of Culture Miri Regev, who Gitai believes is reducing Israeli cinema to a propaganda machine. Israel’s diversity is represented by a diverse cast, which also includes Hana Laszlo, Yaël Abecassis, Yuval Scharf, Karen Mor, Lamis Ammar, and Mustafa Masi, speaking Hebrew, English, French, German, or Arabic. Gitai (Rabin, the Last Day; West of the Jordan River) is very clear about what he hopes to accomplish with the film. “A Tramway in Jerusalem is an optimistic and ironic metaphor of the divided city of Jerusalem in which we, Israelis, Palestinians, and others, try to simulate how life can happen in this microcosm or ‘sardine can’ of a tramway, in the utopian days to come,” he explains in his director’s statement. “Beyond the current days of conflict and violence, how can people accept each other’s existence, their differences and disputes, with no killing. Is this tram the sign that a peaceful coexistence is possible?” A Tramway in Jerusalem is screening January 12 at 7:00 and January 13 at 3:45 at the Walter Reade Theater, with Gitai participating in Q&As after each show. A joint presentation of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum, the New York Jewish Film Festival runs January 9-22, with such other films as Eric Barbier’s opening night Promise at Dawn, Yehonatan Indursky’s centerpiece Autonomies, and Bille August’s closing night A Fortunate Man.