Theater Review: "Yentl" At Asolo Repertory Theatre
The show opens with Anshel (Hillary Clemens) addressing the audience directly. Anshel reveals himself to actually be Yentl, the daughter of a rabbi, who has convinced her father to let her study the Torah, against Jewish law. After her father's death, Yentl turns herself into Anshel and decides to go to yeshiva. Early on in her journey, she meets Avigdor (Andrew Carter), a fellow scholar. They become fast friends, and Avigdor convinces his new friend to study with him at the same yeshiva. Avigdor also explains that he had been engaged to the love of his life, Hadass (Gisela Chípe), but her family called off the engagement. He hopes Anshel will take his place in Hadass' heart, since he cannot.
The play is sprinkled with musical interludes, composed by Jill Sobule, with help from Robin Eaton. Sobule is best known for her songs "Supermodel" (from the "Clueless" soundtrack) and the original "I Kissed a Girl." The songs, which are sung by a Greek chorus of sorts, are simple, but generally effective. "Jonathan and David" and "What Have I Done" are particularly well-incorporated into the show.
Clemens, who was lovely in "Fallen Angels," really shines in this meatier role. She renders Yentl's struggle with such empathy that one cannot help but be moved by her plight. While other stories, such as that of Fa Mu Lan or Tamora Pierce's character Alanna, have addressed the idea of a woman portraying herself as a man in order to advance herself in society, it is hard for the average reader or viewer to understand how steep the cost is of doing so. Here, above all else, "Yentl" succeeds. While it is clear that she loves Avigdor, and Clemens and Carter have lovely chemistry together, the audience also sees why she must choose scholarship over love. Yentl, Avigdor, and Hadass are caught in a truly tragic triangle, but the nature of the relationships therein is never cheapened at the expense of a joke. When the audience laughs at Anshel's exasperation, they are not laughing because he is comically exaggerated—they are laughing at the truth that has led to this reaction.
On the other hand, Chípe's Hadass comes across as a very hollow creature. While Anshel does describe her as such, one cannot help but hope to find a spark of life in her somewhere. Alas, like Anshel, the audience is disappointed and left with a pretty face without much behind it. It's hard to say whether the fault lies in the one-dimensionality of the character or in Chípe's acting, but there is something unsatisfying about the whole thing.
The ensemble generally works well together, with no notable standouts, except for two: Carolyn Michel, who is quite entertaining as the town "wisewoman," and Ashley Scallon as Nechele and a vocalist, who detracted from the tone of the rest of the show.
Gordon Greenberg's direction is quite seamless, aside from the isolated moment of direct address at the beginning of the show, which does not really jibe with the rest of the show. As a whole, "Yentl" takes a while to settle into place, but once it hits its stride, it takes the audience on a compelling odyssey. While at times, it comes off as "Spring Awakening" 2.0 (a 19th century story of repressed youth scored by a 90s pop star with similar design elements), it becomes clear that this is a very different beast, and one that cuts much deeper. Brian Sidney Bembridge's scenic design is simple, but effective, and Paul Miller's lighting design is gorgeous. Both work together to create a beautiful atmosphere for Yentl's world.
There has apparently been some buzz about "Yentl" making a transfer somewhere else after its run at the Asolo in Sarasota ends on April 26. Hopefully, this will come to fruition, as while it is not an obvious choice for a night at the theater, it is an immensely enjoyable show, and, perhaps more importantly, a very thought-provoking experience.
Reach Katie here.