‘Uneven Poet’ opens Traveling Jewish Theatre’s 30th anniversary season

Last summer, Traveling Jewish Theatre nearly closed its doors for good. Fortunately, fans and admirers responded to an emergency fundraising appeal, and the venerable Bay Area theater company survived to fight another day.

To celebrate, TJT opened its 30th season this week with a revival of “The Last Yiddish Poet,” one of its earliest and most acclaimed original works. The play runs through Dec. 14 at TJT’s theater in San Francisco.

Co-written by TJT co-founders Corey Fischer, Albert Greenberg and Naomi Newman, the play had not been produced since 1994. This latest incarnation, directed by Newman, stars Fischer and Aaron Davidman, TJT’s artistic director.

The two portray a Jewish version of Samuel Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, two street entertainers inhabiting a miasmic world where the Yiddish language fades like a late-morning dream. Instead of Godot, these two wait for a fabled last Yiddish poet to turn up and save the Mamaloshen — and perhaps Jewish culture itself — from extinction.

Longtime patrons of TJT will recognize the signature hallmarks of the company: fanciful fluid plots, music, puppetry and effusive language. Both Davidman and Fischer sing and play their own instruments (accordion and guitar, respectively), acquitting themselves quite well as singers of Yiddish songs.

Superb artists both, Fischer and Davidman manage to pull off broad physical comedy, Marx Brothers-like repartee and even reading Yiddish poetry aloud with all the musicality it demands.

The evocative sound of spoken Yiddish — what Fischer’s character calls “the language of domesticity and chance” — is indeed one of the play’s assets. Hearing the language on stage invokes memories of a vanished Yiddish culture that nearly essentially died out.

“The Last Yiddish Poet,” first staged in 1980, was in part a reaction to that dissipating culture. Since then, the famed worldwide Yiddish revival took off and never stopped. Instead of a lament, the play is now much more a celebration of a successful effort to save the vernacular language of the Jews.

Unfortunately, while the two stars’ linguistic pas de deux offers its pleasures, the formlessness of “The Last Yiddish Poet” ultimately prevents audiences from deeply connecting.

The play has no narrative to speak of. Bouncing from a New York café to some nameless shtetl, the two characters as written never develop character. It is never clear what they want to say about the Yiddish language or culture. And a few gloomy minutes about the Holocaust thrown in at the end seem like an effort to inject honest emotion into a play that inherently fails to do so.

Traveling Jewish Theatre has been an aesthetic treasure to the Bay Area. The company richly deserved to be saved, and will no doubt continue to contribute to the cultural life of the local Jewish community and beyond.

But nobody bats 1.000. “The Last Yiddish Poet” is a rare strikeout for a great theater company.

“The Last Yiddish Poet” plays 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays through Dec. 14, with 2 p.m. Sunday matinees, at Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida St., S.F. Tickets: $30-$34. Information: (415) 292-1233 or online at www.atjt.com.

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.