As I’m sure you already know, I saw ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ this weekend at the new Durham Performing Arts Center. Actually, I did not see it once, I saw it twice (complicated story how that happened). Bride of Coturnix and I went alone on Friday night, and we brought the kids with us on Saturday afternoon. Which was good timing as today Topol had to cancel and Tevye is being played by his understudy.
First, I have to admit I am very happy that DPAC (the Durham Performing Arts Center) is doing so well. As Breakfast with Pandora says, building an enormous new art and performance center at this day and age, when everyone is getting entertainment online or on TV, as well as everyone is feeling the economic pinch, was a risky and daring endeavor. We saw ‘Rent’ last month and ‘Fiddler’ twice this week, and each time the place was packed – young and old people, from all walks of life, are using this opportunity and flocking to DPAC to watch the shows.
As much as I am a Web evangelist, you know I think that the main purpose for it is to find people and events in Real Life. The physical presence is important. The feeling of being in the same room with Topol can never be replicated online.
Second, I have to commend DPAC for fantastic organization. Having thousands of people descend on a single point in space (the one and only entrance door) in a narrow period of time is a logistical nightmare. Yet, they make it look easy – everything flows smoothly. They have many, many employees (and/or volunteers), all nice, helpful and professional, guiding the traffic around the couple of blocks of Durham, making sure everyone gets to park in one of the 3 or 4 neighborhood parking garages, and ushering people to their seats all in time for the show. And show can start at the exact time posted.
Of course, there is always an individual with a huge-ass ego who thinks the theater should wait for his late Highness to arrive, and aggravating the rest of us by making the ushers open the door and shuffle him to his precious seat after the show has started and we are all already enjoying the show. There are always jerks in the world, I guess….
I am actually very glad I got to see it twice – I had two very different experiences despite the two shows being exactly the same! The first night, I was in awe of being in the same room with Topol, totally emotional, chocking up on each number. I was also totally focused on him, treating the rest of the cast and the set as background to Topol, not really paying attention to them, thus not particularly liking them very much. The second time, I decided to sit back and enjoy myself, taking in the entire show, not just Topol. And this way I grokked how fantastic the rest of it was. OK, now for some details…
Topol is Yoda. A zen master. Calm, relaxed, yet powerful without exerting any effort to be so. In a sense, he is directing the play right there from the stage. The entire cast are veterans of various Fiddlers from around the country, actors who decided it was worth being on stage with Topol and playing second fiddle even if it meant being a “villager” instead of being Tevye (yes, some of the “villagers” were Tevyes hundreds of times before in their own theaters). There is an air of reverence towards him – they are all here to help him make the best Fiddler ever. And they are all here because they want to be – they love the play, they enjoy every minute of it: this is not ‘just a job’ for any of them and it shows.
Now, I have been listening to Topol on tapes and CDs of a few of his past performances, and watching the movie a number of times. I know every note and every word of Fiddler. He is almost 74. His voice is still powerful, but not as powerful as it used to be. What he never lost was the absolutely perfect sense of timing, amazing body language, and amazing ability to convey emotions through his beard-covered facial expressions (even seen from a large distance of the balcony).
Tevye is an extremely taxing role. Tevye is on stage almost 100% of the time, has several long (and difficult) numbers to sing, several tough dances, and quite a lot of walking, falling, physical activity… It is not an easy role for anyone, let alone for someone of Topol’s age. I have noticed that there are several points in the play where Tevye usually stands, walks or dances, but Topol, this time, is sitting on his milk-cart or a bench instead, or start out sitting and gets up about a minute later than it is usually done – they had to find good moments for him to conserve his energy so he could go through the more physically demanding moments.
Topol is also a perfect Tevye due to his looks – he is small and skinny (even more so due to his age). Just because the first Tevye, Zero Mostel, was an enormous man, many directors make the same mistake of casting enormous actors as Tevye, and that is a mistake (only Lazar Wolf should be a big, fat guy in this play – all the rest are supposed to be perpetually hungry). When an enormous guy shows defiance, it is not surprising. When a tiny guy does the same, it is a jolt, and a display of great personal courage. When the entire village respects an enormous Tevye it feels viscerally natural, but when the village reveres a tiny, skinny guy, you are forced to think why and conclude it must be hard-earned through wisdom, wit, hard work and honesty. The message is completely different.
Another thing that comes with Topol’s age is that he sings a little slower. Especially the numbers in which he sings solo or is leading, e.g., “If I were a rich man”, “Sabbath Prayer”, “Sunrise, Sunset”, “Do you love me”, “Little bird…” and “Anatevka”. This slows down the entire play a little bit as the others also slow down. And this is a Good.Thing. Fiddler is not supposed to be a frantic, glitzy play (like they did so badly a few years back in Raleigh). It happens in 1914 in the remote village in Russia. The time and the place! The pace of life was so much slower then. If you sit back and relax, the slower pace of the play will slow you down as well – you will notice your heart rate slowing, your blood pressure going down, and you will feel so much more relaxed as well as transported mentally and emotionally into that extinct world of old. And it has the same effect on all the actors – by slowing down, they also relax and get to enjoy their acting even more. Then they look so much more authentic.
Shifting my focus from Topol to the entire play made me also realize how fantastic the set design, scenography and choreography were. They are all understated – the objects on the stage are simple, the costumes traditional, the dances are not trying too hard to show off athletic performance (except in one scene where it matters – the Tevye’s dream). But it is also obviously technically very sophisticated – the objects on stage move around (magnets? pulleys?) smoothly, almost hypnotically, seamlessly joining scenes that are usually jarringly separated (the orchestration, also seamlessly moving from the theme of the previous scene to the next, helps with the effect greatly). The props are cleverly designed to easily shift shapes and quickly change from one to the next. The whole show thus had this dreamlike, hypnotizing quality, never letting you wake up from it and realizing you are in the theater in Durham and not in Anatevka.
As I mentioned above, the cast are all Fiddler veterans, in love with the play and obiously enjoying every moment of it (the same reason why I loved the original Belgrade cast). I completely disagree with the New and Observer reviewer Jim Wise (did he even watch the same show?) on this. These were real pros who, nonetheless, would probably have done this for free if needed, just to have fun for themselves and to be on stage with Topol.
Jim Wise hated Mary Stout as Yente. I read his review after the Friday show and before the Saturday show. On Friday I did not really pay attention to her, but on Saturday I did – and I liked her more! She was having a blast doing the role and it was obvious and infectious.
Another way I disagree with Jim Wise is on the role of tailor Motel Komzoil (Erik Liberman). Jim gushes over him. I think he was the weakest link in the entire play. Well, Motel is usually the weakest link in almost every Fiddler I have seen or heard so far. But let me explain:
Motel is probably the most complex role in Fiddler (apart from Tevye himself). During most of the first half, Motel is a meek, weak, frightened little kid. But then he stands up to Tevye, still very nervous. He persists despite getting a push-back from Tevye and eventually wins. At this moment he is completely transformed. Overwhelmed by joy for getting what he wanted most (Tseitel), surprised at his own courage, emboldened by his own victory (probably the first time in his life!), he turns, in front of our eyes, from a boy into a man. And he belts out “Miracle of Miracles” very powerfully. Then, he remains confident and assertive for the rest of the play. After his wedding to Tseitel, he is one of the patriarchs, equal with the likes of Tevye, Lazar and others.
The casting directors constantly make the same mistake – picking the actor for the role of Motel for the first half, forgetting the second, more important half for this role. They pick a tall, skinny, lanky guy with glasses and a squeaky voice who does wonderfully well portraying the weekling boy at the beginning, but is overwhelmed by the rest of the role. It is so much easier for a powerful actor to pretend to be weak in the beginning and then transform into a strong personality, than it is for a weak actor to pretend he is really assertive and confident in the second half. With such a choice, the “Miracle of Miracles”, a powerful song, sounds thin and unpersuasive. The displays of assertiveness later on look comical instead of serious. And many Motels actually play it for a comical effect, including, perhaps more than some others I’ve seen, Erik Liberman. He just does not take this role seriously enough and plays for laughs and giggles throughout the play. The whole effect of his transformation from boy to man is lost. After the show, Bride of Coturnix looked at me and said “You should have jumped on the stage and sung Miracle of Miracles – you do a better job with it”.
Golde (Susan Cella), Tzeitel (Rena Strober), Hodel (Jamie Davis), Chava (Alison Walla), Lazar Wolf (Bill Nolte), Perchik (Colby Foytik) and Fyedka (Eric Van Tielen) were all very good. I have seen better in each role, but I have also seen much worse in each role as well. I certainly have no complaints about any of them – their energy and love for this play more than make up for any comparative weaknesses in, for instance, singing ability (no, don’t take it wrong, they all sing well, but I have heard some more amazing singers in those roles before).
And the energy is what always makes this play work, not technical perfection and singing bravures. And that energy was palpable throughout the play, making the show an unforgettable experience. Kudos to everyone involved in the play, and to DPAC for getting the show to Durham in the first place. I hope my kids will, in 20 years if not today, understand they saw history and will cherish the memory.