In the foreword to the 1921 English version of Peretz Hirschbein’s Yiddish-language play The Haunted Inn, translator Isaac Goldberg explains, “So much of the drama is written with Mr. Hirschbein’s sensitivity to subdued tones; . . . here color tends to subside into nuance, and action . . . is refined into the suggestions of impulse and mood.” Target Margin Theater has wonderfully captured that nuance, impulse, and mood in its hundredth anniversary presentation of the experimental Yiddish play, which they call The (*) Inn, the asterisk meaning “empty, vacant, abandoned; usually translated as ‘Haunted.’” Directed by David Herskovits (who also handles the sound design), the play, running at Abrons Arts Center through March 30, is set in a shtetl where local farmers are preparing for an arranged wedding while also contemplating the future of a nearby shuttered inn that might just be home to spirits. The show opens with a hyper-stylized scene in which characters in overemphasized accents discuss life and love while a man and a woman playfully pass by with cutouts of farm animals, evoking amateur high school productions.
But things get a whole lot more adult during a wedding scene in which the bride, Meta (Rachel Claire), runs off with Itsik (Sam T. West) instead of marrying her arranged beau, Leibush (Susan Hyon), and winds up in a mysterious area, exploring both their lust and their fears. Meanwhile, Meta’s father, Bendet (Amir Darvish), begins to lose his mind as the show grows ever-more abstract, with nuance, impulse, and mood taking center stage. The (*) Inn is beautifully unconventional, offering unexpected surprise after unexpected surprise, with creative sets by Carolyn Mraz and intense lighting by Lenore Doxsee, ranging from the overly bright opening to the deep, dark conclusion. Performed by a cast that also includes Ugo Chukwo, David Greenspan, Meg MacCary, Julia Sirna-Frest, and J. H. Smith III, The (*) Inn is not your grandfather’s Yiddish theater. As dramaturg Debra Caplan writes in a program note, “When The (*) Inn first premiered in Vilna in 1913, critics and audiences had never seen anything quite like it before. One hundred years after the original production of this seminal Yiddish play, we at Target Margin are willing to bet that you’ve never seen anything quite like it either.” Target Margin Theater wins that bet, with a show that is part of its two-year “Beyond the Pale” exploration of Yiddish theater. (There will be a free panel discussion, “Yiddish Theater Lives!,” prior to the March 23 show, moderated by Caplan, as well as a discussion with Herskovits and other cast and crew members after the March 28 performance.)