Fiddlers’ Dream: One from the roof
November 1, 2006
Tom Ward, who has designed the sets for 20 Aspen Community Theatre productions, can do grand; witness his sets for “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.”Ward, though, has had to use a lighter touch for ACT’s 30th anniversary production, “Fiddler on the Roof,” which runs through Nov. 12. By design, the sets don’t dominate the stage. John Trow, who directs the production, calls them “very non-elaborate.” The audience, continued Trow, “can always see the trees and skies beyond. There’s always a sense of looking beyond the village and what happened there.””Fiddler on the Roof,” which earned multiple Tony Awards (including best musical, best actor, best author and best set design) upon its opening in 1965, can seem like the most insular of stories. Based on stories by the Russian Jewish author Sholom Aleichem, the action of “Fiddler” is contained almost entirely within the small Russian village of Anatevka. Tighter still, the play focuses on the tight-knit Jewish community of Anatevka, a band of people famously united, as declared in the opening sequence, by their sense of … “Tradition!”But in 1905, the year in which “Fiddler” is set, the world is starting to shake, and the tremors are strong enough to be felt even in Anatevka. “Fiddler on the Roof” – with a book by Joseph Stein, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and music by Jerry Bock – opens a window on the changes taking place in the bigger world. Modern inventions, like Motel’s sewing machine, and modern ideas, like the romantic notion of love, are dazzling and confounding the inhabitants of the Jewish shtetl. The stirrings of the 1905 Revolution are uprooting Tsarist Russia – literally so for Anatevka’s Jews, who are increasingly made scapegoats for the peasant uprising and worker strikes. By play’s end, any sense of the village being separated from the world has vanished, as the Jewish residents – now refugees – stagger away, talking of their next destination: “Chicago in America.” “The holy land, Jerusalem.” “New York in America.”
The window that looks out on the vast, modern world, with all its perils and promises, has been opened wide. Trow wants the audience to see that the plight of Anatevka’s Jews was echoed in the ’70s with the Cambodians living under the Khmer Rouge, and today in the Sudanese of the Darfur region, escaping the Janjaweed militia.”In ‘Anatevka,’ the song after the Jews have to go and are told they can’t stay there anymore – it goes beyond just the Jewish problem, the Jewish issue,” said Trow, who directed a high school production of “Fiddler” seven years ago in Minnesota, and played Mendel, the rabbi’s son, in a dinner-theater version. “There are many oppressed people in the world, unfairly judged, being forced out of their homes, forced out of their countries. I want the cast to sing for all people who go through that. I wanted them to use these songs in a big way, to understand all of these people.”At the same time, Trow has also strived to understand the Jewishness that is more immediately at the heart of “Fiddler.” “I’m just a dumb Irish boy,” said Trow, noting that the actors who play the lead character, Tevye (Pat Holloran), and the rabbi (Ralph Sheehan) are likewise Irish. “And a show like this shows the Jewish faith, the pressures put on the Jewish people at the time, the internal pressure for them, for Tevye, to go against his tradition. And the pressure of being forced to leave their homes.”I felt it important to have as much knowledge of that as I could, so we could represent the people and still serve the play in the way we feel the author intended it to be.”
Through a pair of books – “Shtetl,” by Eva Hoffman, and Sholom Aleichem’s “Tevye and His Daughters,” from which “Fiddler on the Roof” is adapted – Trow researched the Jewish villages of early 20th century Eastern Europe. He also met with Rabbi Joseph Edelheit in Minneapolis, where Trow lives. The education didn’t end with the director. Trow taped Edelheit talking about shtetl life and shared it with his cast; he also enlisted Shereen Sarick, a professional Jewish educator who appears as a villager, to talk about Jewish themes with the rest of the cast.”I used her to explain to the actors, to go to the deep spiritual meaning behind ‘Sabbath Prayer’ and ‘Sunrise, Sunset,'” said Trow. “Through her we have a great grasp of what it’s all about, how to approach it, and how do we convey that to the audience.”Another theme, perhaps even more universal than that of displacement, and closer to the core of “Fiddler,” is the concept of change, and the maintaining of traditions. “Fiddler” opens with Tevye talking and singing about the etched-in-stone traditions that are the bedrock of the community; the climactic scene has Tevye asking how much a person, a village, can change without coming detached from its core identity.”The major thematic question is, how far can we stretch ourselves and how flexible can we become without losing our balance?” said Trow, who has also been the director of Aspen’s Crystal Palace dinner theater show since 1989. “That’s the major question Tevye is forced to focus on.”Trow observes setting “Fiddler” in 1905 Russia was a brilliant stroke for examining that question. It was the beginning of a revolutionary movement that would result in the overthrow of the Russian monarchy and the birth of Communism. It was a particularly precipitous time for the Jews: 1905 was a peak year for the pogroms that forced Jews out of Eastern Europe. It was also a time that saw the emergence of Jewish secularism.
Much of this is at the surface of “Fiddler.” There are disturbing instances of anti-Semitism. Perchik, the student who comes to Anatevka from the big city, represents secularism, modernism and the peasant uprising. Most prominent are the marriages, or pending marriages, of Tevye and Golde’s (Tammy Baar) daughters, and the lack of control Tevye has over their choice of husband.Rabbi Edelheit, said Trow, spoke of “the three daughters representing three phases of modernity, and how this pushes against the values of tradition.” The first daughter, Tzeitel (Beth Brandon), wants to get married without a matchmaker – but to Motel (Tyson Young), the otherwise tradition-minded tailor. The second daughter, Hodel (Jennica Lundin), wants to marry Perchik (Lane McDiffet), despite the fact that he has been sent to a Siberian prison. The third daughter, Chava (Whitney Mufson), insists she will marry the Russian, Fyedka (Hector Ulysses Lopez).”The third one represents the threat of ultimate survival of the Jewish faith,” said Trow, “this idea of mixed marriage. And so Tevye is forced: How does he handle these three issues?”In another artistic choice that Trow says makes “Fiddler” the best of musicals, Tevye addresses these questions in a series of open conversations with God.”The strength in that relationship that he has with God, and the fact that we witness his conversations with him, opens him up to his innermost thoughts and feelings,” said Trow. “That’s brilliant. It helps the audience, where we all get to look down into the village – but also through and beyond the village.”We get to look in on their world, through a window, all the time.”Aspen Community Theatre’s “Fiddler on the Roof” will be presented at the Aspen District Theatre today and tomorrow at 7 p.m.; Wednesday through Saturday, Nov. 8-11, at 7 p.m.; and Sunday, Nov. 5, and Sunday, Nov. 12, at 2 p.m. Tickets are available at the Wheeler Box Office, by calling 920-5770, or online at http://www.wheeleroperahouse.com.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com