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Is This Play Haunted or Not?

Date: Mar 19, 2013


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The play asks impossible questions. Is this Jewish family feeling stress about an arranged marriage, or are their psyches falling apart? Is the inn near their home haunted, or is it somehow physicalizing the desire of a daughter who wants the wrong man? Did the merchants at her wedding simply give her gifts, or did they lay a curse on her heart?

In every case, the answer is yes. And no. And possibly.

That's why Peretz Hirschbein's The (*) Inn, now being revived by Target Margin Theater at Abrons Arts Center,  is such a bewitching classic of the Yiddish theatre. In one sense, it's a typical family drama about parents and children and love, but in another, it's a symbolic fever dream, tearing apart our expectations.

Written in 1913, the play was highly influential in the Yiddish theatre, and that was often because it rejected typical narrative devices. In one scene, for instance, when young Meta runs off with the man she really wants to marry, she says shockingly sexual things to him, and an eerie fire seems to reflect what's passing between them. Eventually, Meta's father, who is fighting to maintain traditional order, seems to be haunted by ghosts. We never know exactly what's happening, but it's obvious that <i>something</i> is shaking the world of this play.

Often, however, translations of the script erase these ambiguities. In the program for the Target Margin production, a note explains that translators often respond by "smoothing over the violently passionate relationship between the main characters" and "eliminating dozens of culturally specific references."

Target Margin is putting everything back in. Even the name of their production suggests their commitment to the unknown. Typically, the play's title is translated as The Haunted Inn. But by calling their show The (*) Inn---by refusing to declare whether the inn is haunted or not---the company immediately asks us to wonder what's happening.

And from the very first scene, we're thrust into mystery. At first, it seems like we're watching a stylized riff on borscht belt comedy, full of charmingly low-tech sets and hammy performances. But soon enough, the set is replaced with the bare back walls of the theatre or with strange assortment of modern-day objects.

Meanwhile, the actors keep changing performance styles. Slapstick-y comedy turns into hushed, private pain. Or else the performers mime their actions while recordings of their voices speak their lines.

These eruptions are like watching the sea. We enjoy a calm scene of essentially realistic theatre, but then, like shark bursting through the water, a wild new style emerges. Suddenly, a stagehand in street clothes rushes on and shoves a microphone in an actor's face, strangely amplifying her voice. Then the shark dives back under the surface, but we know it will surface again.

The effect of this production---much like the effect of the playwriting---is disorienting and thrilling. For director David Herskovits, who is also Target Margin's artistic director, that's entirely the point. "The text is really strange," he says. "It's mysterious and opaque, and I think there are lots of ways to frame that in a production. If you just try to give an account of the play in completely familiar, psychological, or realistic terms, you would necessarily have to flatten out or erase much of the mystery, self-contradiction, and resonance of the material. And then it would just become a kind of soap opera. It would just be, 'The lovers are separated, and they can't be together.' And that's okay, but that's a story that we know. You'd be rendering it familiar, and the point is, this isn't familiar."

At that, he pauses. "And yet of course it is. It's not familiar, and yet we recognize it. The paradox is that to me, this is the most realistic kind of theatre. It reflects what the real experience of being in the world is, which is not explained and tidy and easily understood in linear terms. Not at all. We all bumble through the world in a fog of association."

To keep the production from feeling predictable, Herskovits used rehearsals to try out as many ideas as possible. "And then the process, of course, becomes about ruthless and rigorous editing and shaping," he says. "Some things just naturally fall away. Some things I'll put in knowing that they're not what I want to do, but I'll leave them because they'll remind me to do something different. As we're working, it will become clearer to me---either intellectually, or more likely just viscerally---that there are certain things I'm just committed to keeping [on stage.]"

He stresses the discipline of this editing phase: "I don't just want to confuse people. I want them to be let into the work. I care a lot about storytelling, and I don't want to make things uncomfortable for their own sake."

That's one reason why, no matter how bizarre things get in The (*) Inn, we can always track what the characters want and do. "It's not terrible to give people some comfort and support," Herskovits says. "There's no reason that work that's bold in this way has to be painful or difficult. It should be difficult in the right way."


Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Erik Carter