Being trapped in the wrong body is no fun, since the only escape is to disguise yourself in order to be true to yourself. The Jewish-American author Isaac Bashevis Singer knew this when he penned the short story "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy."
As anyone knows who saw the Barbra Streisand movie/musical adaptation, it's about a young Jewish woman in 19th-century Poland who feels like a man inside, intellectually and in other ways. In the non-musical version, now at the Cleveland Play House, the play Yentl by Leah Napolin and Singer explores this rich material in detail—sometimes excruciating detail. And despite a very long first act and a couple odd staging choices, the piece retains the power to make us question the death grip that attributed gender can impose on many people.
Young Yentl is continually trained by her father to be a thoughtful and even argumentative woman. She discusses the finer points of the Talmud, even though this practice is forbidden by law and custom in their hyper-religious community.
When her father dies, Yentl feels cut asunder and rejects the idea of becoming another typical Jewish woman, destined to just cook meals and mother a brood of kiddies. So she disguises herself as a man, named Anshel after her late brother, and pursues her dream of being a yeshiva student and scholar.
No one bats an eye at Yentl/Anshel, portrayed in the play by Rebecca Gibel, and this introduces a disconnecting note. Ms. Gibel is a fine actor, nailing all the abrupt beat changes and revealing the torment of this man inside a woman's body. But her slight stature, lilting voice and wispy frame would throw into question her supposedly male identity in virtually any village or town—no matter how much she tries to swagger and posture. Sure, there are genetic men who are short and slight, but this play would benefit from a Yentl who could more convincingly portray a man physically.
As a result, the audience's willing suspension of disbelief gets a vigorous workout as Gibel's Anshel continues to flummox people, shares some intense guy-time with fellow student Avigdor, and even marries lovely Hadass, who appears taller and more robust than her new beau.
Setting appearances aside (and isn't that the message, after all?), the cast under the direction of Michael Perlman handle their characters with precision and commitment. As Avigdor, Ben Mehl is believable and energetic, and he carries off his frontal nudity scene with as much casual panache as one could wish for. And Therese Anderber's Hadass conveys the charming blush of first love.
Many supporting actors, including Dorothy Silver as the wise-cracking nurse Yachna and Sarah Kinsey as Pesha, Avigdor's shrewish wife, add some humorous grace notes to the proceedings.
The first act, however, covers so many of the different laws and restrictions of this tight-knit community that the plot tends to slow to a crawl. And there are long passages of text delivered in Hebrew, which can be aurally fascinating for a while—until it begins to wear thin.
But the second act fairly crackles with thematic power as it deals with the obvious gender and feminist issues it raises. Not to mention ideas swirling around the value of scholarship and same-sex relationships.
The entire production is not particularly well served by the pre-show gimmick of having the actors chat with the audience, from the stage and out in the aisles. Since the actors are in period costume but do not stay in character, this exercise seems false to the play and a wan attempt to do some fast and cheap audience bonding ("Hey, I love your scarf!")
The simple yet effective set by Robin Vest works well, especially as scenes are enhanced by Burke Brown's elegant lighting design.
While this Yentl is short of perfect, it still raises important questions about identity that invite serious contemplation.