It was a Chicago first, “The First Chicago Jewish Theatre Festival, Teatron” and it took place for eight days from November 3 to 10 at the Victory Gardens Theatre. ShPIe Producing Artistic Director David Y. Chack proudly presented a lineup that included staged readings, solo performances, storytelling, cabaret, and comedy and music. This eight-day festival which was dedicated to Jewish theatre was presented in conjunction with and overlapped the annual Alliance for Jewish Theatre Conference that was hosted by ShPIeL at Victory Gardens Theater and The Theatre School at DePaul University from November 1-3, 2019.
Debra Davy, Chicago Splash Magazine journalist, reviews the performance of Jewish Jokesters: A Night of Jewish Comedy.
The Saturday evening performances of TEATRON concluded with a late-night show called JEWISH COMEDY NIGHT, aka JEWISH JOKESTERS: A NIGHT OF JEWS AND COMEDY featuring Jeremy Drezner, Lia Berma, Susan Messing, Rachael Mason and Sophie Raimi, hosted by Evan Richter.
There wasn’t anything much tying together the performers, and only some of the acts had distinct references to Jewish themes, but there was something distinctly Jewish about the acts. It was a pervasive sense that the comedians/characters were laughing at the folly of society when they seemed to be taking the world seriously- and always, always, laughing at themselves. Also, there is a hint of perplexity…WHY is this happening to me?
There have always been Jews who use humor to leaven the everyday cares and concerns of their lives, and humor is a potent force against discrimination and class hatred. The world is much richer for all the famous Jewish comic writers and stand-up comedians whose shtick makes the problems of the world recede. However, Jewish humor is too rich and diverse to be summed up by any single definition.
To try and put a finger on it, however, none of the comedians used escapist rhetoric; they confronted the issues intimately and head-on. None of them used actual physical or slapstick humor, although there was a taste of that in the “Fiddler On The Roof” bits. Also, none of it was abstract, it drove right to the gut; “Every word you say is like a knife in my brain”.
The humor wasn’t particularly cerebral, thankfully, not too sophisticated, although certain of the performers touched upon “serious” issues, like fat-shaming and the general horror of American politics today. There was, finally, a sense that all of us understood where truth lay amidst the “mishegass” that is all around us, and that we were going to either understand it, get beyond it, or just join in!
Barbara Keer, Chicago Splash Magazine journalist, experienced the Sunday afternoon production of Operetta in Exile: The Music Silenced by the Third Reich. The multi-media concert explored the world of librettists and composers who either perished or were forced into exile by the Nazis, and featured songs from operettas by Leo Ascher, Emmerich Kálmán, Jean Gilbert, Paul Abrahám, Robert Stolz, Franz Lehár, and Leon Jessel. The narrator who introduced the songs enhanced and deepened the impact of the musical pieces offered by five outstanding performers. The chamber ensemble was well places and again, the live music beautifully executed embellished the entire performance. Projections of photos of paintings by Jewish artist from the Second World War were carefully chosen to match the tone of the musical pieces. I have seen the group in other productions and I am always impressed with the quality of the voices, they are beautiful.
Performers were: Singers- Alison Kelly, Soprano, Katherine Peterson, soprano, Gerald Frantzen, tenor, William Roberts, baritone, Cantor Scott Simon, tenor and Chamber Orchestra-Rachel Brown, violin1, Agnieszka Likos, violin2,Tracey Newhouse, viola, Patrycja Likos, cello, Brett Lewis, bass and Teresa Kang, piano.
At the end of the performance, after several minutes of enthusiastic applause, ShPIeL Producing Artistic Director David Y.Chack spoke to the audience. He pointed out that we had a special role in that we were attending the very first Teatron. He also reminded the audience that eighty-one years ago, on Nov. 8-9, 1938, the night and day of Kristallnacht took place throughout Germany.
David later shared his thoughts about this first year of Teatron:
“We are so gratified at the turn-out by Chicago attendees, of what was essentially an underground Jewish theatre festival in this premiere year, and yet we saw about 450 people over the course of the week. Highlights were the Folks Operetta performing the Operetta of Exiles and the powerful stories of these, mostly, Jewish artists who made such beauty and were caught in the devastation of the Holocaust. Another was the “Ben Hecht Show,” featuring James Sherman, a consummate writer and performer. And comedy night was so fun, quirky, even surreal to see these Jewish comedic artists, doing what Jews have done over history – take suffering and survive through joking about it.”
Photo credit: Paul Grigonis