Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 30, 2021

Review: Yiddish Book Center, The Dead Man (radio drama)

Yiddish Book Center, Amherst, MA
through May 9, 2021
by Shera Cohen

I remember, several decades ago, visiting my Bubie (grandmother) on a Sunday; every Sunday no matter what the weather or anything more important to the younger me. I bless those Sundays now. Her tenement apartment was large, even by today's standards. Her radio, to the right of the kitchen, was also large; approximately 4 feet high. This was the radio that the entire proverbial family sat around, kids on the floor, listening intensely to stories. I suppose the radio also broadcast news of the day, comedians bantering, and advertisements. I was too young to remember most of what I heard, but snippets in my brain seem to recall Maxwell House Coffee as the sponsor of just about everything in those days.

Delighting my burgeoning love of theatre was listening to these stories, the short plays with full casts complete with background sound effects. I don't know if "playettes" is an actual word, but it's the best description I can think of calling these mysteries, comedies, dramas, and monologues. I doubt if the younger me would have fully understood the text of the play "The Dead Man". However, the Yiddish Book Center's production was poignant and telling.

The Coronavirus-19 has, for good or bad, brought back many of the older modes of presenting theatre and other entertainment, like music, that doesn't necessarily have to be seen to fully appreciate. The cast of approximately 10 actors spoke with enunciation that clearly created an image of each character to the listeners. The turn-of-the 19th-century European vignette was spoken in English with a Yiddish flavor. 

The crux was the entry of a stranger into the midst of a poor little village. It is not a spoiler to say that the man is G-d's recruiter. He spoke in a deep, dark monotone. Obviously, the director called for the actor's demeanor, although the sound resonated a foreboding and unpleasant image. The other characters are entranced as they see and hear this creation who looks like a man. He talks authoritatively and steadfastly encouraging the villagers to follow him to heaven, yet the words "heaven" or "death" are never spoken. The interaction between the man and his fiancé is the most important segment of the play. The two seemingly have very little interest in each other; perhaps an arranged marriage as was common then?

"The Dead Man" might mean that our physical bodies encase the sounds of our inner beings, our souls. The stranger repeatedly encourages the others to follow him to heaven. I believe that a radio drama permits more interpretation than a play onstage. Perhaps others agree with me, or not.

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