Out & About

June 13, 2013

'Odessa' a mix of Old World and New

MONTREAL — With Russian gangsters, a mix of klezmer and rap music, and unique shadow puppetry, this ain’t your “bubbee’s” Yiddish theater.

The Segal Centre rounds out its season with “Tales from Odessa,” the annual Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre production. The show offers a modern twist with innovative theatrical elements and an original music and lyrics score by Josh Dolgin, aka rap artist Socalled, who mixes traditional Yiddish klezmer with rap music. The script is written by Derek Goldman, a professor at Georgetown University.

“But the seed for the whole idea came from Josh,” said Audrey Finkelstein, the director. “In some ways, it’s really his baby.”

Dolgin was inspired by the short stories of Russian writer Isaak Babel, specifically the character of Benya Krik, a Russian Jewish gangster. The musical is set in an Odessa neighborhood on the brink of the Russian Revolution.

“It’s exciting. But it’s not what you think of as a typical Jewish folktale. It’s not Tevya,” Finkelstein quipped, referencing the iconic, and perhaps more stage palatable, “Fiddler on the Roof” lead character.

Finkelstein said that the usual Eastern European story tells of life in a shtetl, a place with a large Jewish population, full of classic Jewish heroes.

“This is not that play,” she said.

That said, there are some typical elements, such as weddings and funerals.

“But it’s a different side of those stories,” she said.

How different? Enter the gangster, a timeless character in many a tale. 

“And Benya is a very colorful, vibrant character,” Finkelstein said.

And he’s not the only one onstage. The annual Yiddish-language production usually packs them in.

“At last count, I think we’re up to 32 cast members onstage,” she said. 

That’s in addition to a live seven-piece band.

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