Yentl (Kadimah), at Arts Centre Melbourne - 120 minutes, excluding a 20-minute interval
Updated: Mar 17, 2022
An original English and Yiddish adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy, Kadimah’s full length play is a lively representation of the spiritual and moral dilemma at the heart of the tale.
Co-developed, co-written and directed by Gary Abrahams, it is based upon the religious tenet that women cannot study the Torah (the five books of the bible, being Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy).
Photos by Jeff Busby
That is the domain purely of men, who spend years attending a Yeshiva, namely a Jewish educational institution that focuses on scholarship of traditional texts.
For as long as she can remember, young Yentl has watched her father teach at the Yeshiva in her home town in Poland and yearned to know and understand the Torah.
But because it is forbidden, her father has prevented her from doing so.
Eventually he relents and Yentl (Jana Zvedeniuk) begins her private tuition with him.
It is 1870 and upon his passing, she disguises herself as a man, binding her breasts.
With the help of a fellow student, Avigdor (Nicholas Jaquinot), she enrols in a small Yeshiva far from home, under the name Anshl.
Yentl/Anshl is immediately admired for “his” insights and ability to mount cogent arguments.
A strong bond develops between Anshl and Avigdor, who is obsessed with sex and tells Anshl how he was prevented – at the eleventh hour – from marrying the love of his life, Hodes (Genevieve Kingsford).
The reason for this becomes clear as the play progresses.
Avigdor remains smitten by Hodes, who has received many overtures from others since, none of which interested her.
But when Hodes’ father invites Anshl to share a meal in their home, Anshl and Hodes form a connection that grows.
Avigdor wants to know everything about Hodes after each subsequent visit that Anshl makes.
Out of frustration, Avidgor marries a local widow – a shopkeeper – that forces him out of the Yeshiva … his future grim.
Anshl is perceived as good and virtuous, but circumstances seal “his” fate and Yentl eventually reveals all to an incredulous Avigdor.
Overseeing the entire drama is Yentl’s conscience, in this case the cackling voice of the evil inclination (Evelyn Krape), serving to narrate and goad.
Yentl, the play, remains a study of light and shade. The damage wrought is plain to see.
It speaks to the good and bad within each of us, with clarity and purpose.
In today’s enlightened age, one must ask why shouldn’t a woman of virtue be allowed to study alongside a man?
The response will differ between an Orthodox or Liberal/Progressive Jew.
The former will say the Torah remains the Torah, as it has been written.
Yentl is compelling, challenging and engaging theatre.
Krape – who is artistic co-director of Kadimah Yiddish Theatre – is an ever-present force on stage.
Zvedeniuk impresses with her tortured representation of Yentl. There is an intensity in her performance. You root for her to find a safe way out, but – of course – there is none.
Jaquinot ensures that Avigdor’s frustrations are apparent throughout, while Kingsford presents Hodes as dutiful and kind.
All are strong in their respective roles.
Gary Abrahams and co-writers Elise Hearst and Galit Klas have done a fine job in adapting the material.
Be aware, there are no musical numbers, a la Barbra Streisand’s 1983 film.
Although primarily in English, Yentl – by Kadimah – also includes liberal passages of Yiddish, which appear as surtitles (beamed onto the set), just as you would see in opera. The combination works well.
I liked what I saw. Yentl captured my attention from the get go and held me tight.
It is playing at Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne, until 26th March, 2022.