Uproarious and deeply touching, Tevye Served Raw might be more accurately, if less trippingly on the tongue, called Sholem Aleichem Served Raw. Tevye, the iconic dairyman best known today from the musical Fiddler on the Roof, was just one figure in a firmament of folk whom the Ukrainian-born writer depicted in the many stories and plays he produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Granted, Tevye is the focal point of the new show. Fully titled Tevye Served Raw: Garnished with Jews, it’s not merely an adaptation of “folk” tales but a bracing cultural phenomenon. Performed in Yiddish and English, but fully accessible to those who understand only the latter, it speaks, naturally, to those with Eastern European Jewish roots. But both its humor and its pathos resonate beyond cultural and religious boundaries.
You need no Yiddish to follow and appreciate the show. I’m a couple of generations removed from the Yiddish speakers in my family and I understand only the occasional word, but through very clever staging the comedic scenes provide translations spoken by one or another of the brilliant three-person cast. It sounds like it might be awkward, but instead, it contributes to the comedy. Supertitles provide the translations in the serious and tragic scenes.
Allen Lewis Rickman (A Serious Man) and Shane Baker (“the best-loved Episcopalian on the Yiddish stage today”) adapted and translated parts of some of Sholem Aleichem’s stories and plays to put the show together. Joined on stage by Yelena Shmulenson and directed by Rickman, they take us through scenes that hew closely, sometimes exactly, to the source material.
If you know Fiddler you’ll recognize Tevye, his wife Golde, his daughters and sons-in-law, and his agonizing struggle to preserve tradition in a rapidly modernizing world. In the new show, the scenes about this family give us a broader chronological picture than we know from Fiddler. Despite the revue format and minimal staging, the sharp dialogue, smooth pacing, and grippingly funny and sad performances make the passages glow with authenticity.
Along with the Tevye vignettes we get comic scenes out of Sholem Aleichem’s broader opus. Two strangers meet on a train and gossip hilariously about a rich man’s scandals. An exasperated wife exchanges letters with her serially failing businessman husband. The specifics of such scenes fuse with the Tevye stories – with costume changes but no scenery or props – into a surprisingly rich picture of the old, gone world the beloved writer depicted. Rickman is a side-splitting funnyman as well as a convincingly expressive Tevye. Baker and Shmulenson shift easily among various well-drawn characters. The sum total is a sheer delight.