This review of New Yiddish Rep's Death Of A Salesman at the Castillo Theatre was written by Nickolaus Hines and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
Death Of A Salesman
Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Moshe Yassur
543 West 42nd Street
New York, New York 10036
When faced with deciding whether to see Toyt Fun A Seylsman, the Yiddish translation of Arthur Miller's iconic 1949 Death Of A Salesman where only a few words are spoken in English, many might initially be inclined to pass on a play performed in a language they do not speak. That is understandable, which is why New Yiddish Rep has projected English "super titles" on the only two walls on stage during its current production, which opens up the play to non-Yiddish speaking audiences. This is the first time a Yiddish translation of Death Of A Salesman has been directed at both a Yiddish and English speaking audience. It was slightly intimidating knowing in advance I would be reading the lines while listening to a language I am unfamiliar with, but the casual cadence brought a tonal level I wasn't expecting. The fact that reading lines are involved shouldn't scare anyone away in today's age of Netflix documentaries and the hit show Narcos that rely on subtitles.
A Yiddish translation of Death Of A Salesman isn't new. This modern production uses the translation by the famed Yiddish actor Joseph Buloff that Buloff and his wife, Luba Kadison, premiered in Buenos Aires, Argentina while the play was still running on Broadway. Though that production looked similar to the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning premiere, its depiction of the Loman family as Jews in New York was a transformation. Arthur Miller approved the translation in the end, and the show made it as far as the Parkway Theater in Brooklyn in 1951. Writer George Ross joked he thought the play sounded so natural in Yiddish that he believed Miller secretly translated the play from Yiddish to English before releasing it in 1949. Director Moshe Yassur skillfully uses a single stage setup and a split audience seating arrangement. He also presents select scenes and dialogue in English to stress the linguistic authenticity of the Loman family in the 1940s. The mixture of English and Yiddish (Buloff did not do this) shows the linguistic, cultural cross-currents of an assimilating Jewish family in mid-century.
Avi Hoffman, as the main character Willy Loman, is an extremely capable actor, as are the rest of those in the ensemble. Understanding Yiddish isn't necessary to understand the internal conflict that Hoffman brings to the character, or the pain of the eldest Loman son Biff, played by Daniel Kahn, or the willful ignorance of the youngest son Happy, played by Lev Herskovitz. Facial expressions and body language already speak louder than words, but when part of the audience doesn't understand the words, any flaws or laziness in body language can throw the audience off. One of the most powerful representations of expressive mastery can be found in Suzanne Toren's character of Linda Loman. Adding to the skill of the actors is Gertjan Houben's eerie lighting. Shadows dance and elongate. Hues of blue and red convey emotion.
If the haunting duplicity of the soul and the capitalist questioning reflected in Death Of A Salesman hasn't already made this play one of your favorites, this staging may change that. It isn't a drama for the light hearted, and it certainly isn't a production in which you will mindlessly lose yourself, but it will draw out questions. Perhaps reading lines while listening and watching let's the meaning sink in deeper, or perhaps the passionate acting alone elicits the mood.
Jumping into this play and buying a ticket for $50.00 admittedly isn't a decision you should take lightly. There are layers to process and lines to read and, spoiler alert, suicides to contemplate. For fans of the classic, however, this adaptation is different enough to be thought-provoking and yet similar enough to hold up to high standards. Toyt Fun A Seylsman (Death Of A Salesman) plays at the Castillo Theatre through November 22, 2015. For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit www.castillo.org