Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Because Someone Had to Do It: Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish

Like Islamic Madrasas (but less scary), Orthodox religious schools are not big on vocational training and Shakespeare is not on the syllabus. As a result, when a nurse in a graduate linguistics program needs help translating the Bard’s great romantic tragedy into the language of Sholem Aleichem, it is all new to Hasidic slackers she hires to assist her. Shakespeare gets thoroughly mashed-up Brooklyn style in writer-director Eve Annenberg’s Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish (trailer here), an alumnus of the New York Jewish Film Festival returning to the Lincoln Center for its theatrical run at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center this Friday.

Nurse Ava was once romantically linked with a Hasidic Jew—once—and now she is not. She remains only slightly bitter, making her grad school assignment a pure joy for her. Lazer and his crony live in a u-haul, panhandling loose change on the street to buy weed. Shakespeare is completely foreign to them, but it is not bad gig, all things considered. As they help Ava adapt her Yiddish Romeo, they assume parts in a stylized version of the play, naturally set in Williamsburg, where the Montagues and Capulets are distinguished by the presence or absence of peyos.

It is difficult to tell whether Annenberg mocks the Hasidic community with affection or venom. She is unequivocally dismissive of religious education though. This ambiguous harshness is rather problematic. However, she creates a wonderfully acerbic persona for herself, delivering a considerable barrage of barbed zingers. Indeed, there are quite a few laughs in Annenberg’s Yiddish, but always at the expense of her religious characters and the world they represent.

While there is no denying the entertainment value of Annenberg’s mordant shtick, much of her apparently rookie cast comes across as such. Indeed, most of the Hasidic stoner characters look and sound awkward in their scenes. Still, Isaac Schoenfeld keeps it real as Rabbi Isaac (who duly becomes Rabbi Lawrence within the meta-play). The true find though would be Melissa Weisz whose sultry screen presence and confident dual performance as Faigy and Juliet stands out rather dramatically.

Annenberg’s Yiddish is never dull, but it is often hard to know what to make of it. Yet, Annenberg’s razor sharp pen is clear throughout. It would be wise not to cross her, lest you find yourself on the receiving end of her next picture. If you are looking for some cutting religious one-liners this weekend, her film would be a good place to start. Not exactly recommended, but a film that engenders an odd affection nonetheless, Yiddish opens this Friday (7/8) in New York at the Elinor Bunin Munroe, which still has that new theater smell.