Dublin Fringe Festival 2017: Levin and Levin
Fiddler in the Cabaret
What is a lie and what is the truth? Both do battle in “Levin and Levin,” a problematic production in which two tales don’t so much contrast as conflict. The first, a historical tale, delivers a name-dropping retelling of the Jewish experience during the early part of the 20th century, and of the pogroms, prejudice and persecutions they experienced. The second, a personal and far more fascinating tale, follows two young girls forced to dress as boys as they flee from Russia, who become international stars of the stage. As if Cabaret met Fiddler on the Roof, met The Mystery of Edwin Drood, met The Sunshine Boys, with a dash of Yentl thrown in for good measure, “Levin and Levin,” has too many elements vying for attention all at once. Elements that reference older, and better told stories of the Jewish experience, in what is an often highly theatrical and spirited production.
Following an onstage blunder during their big, New York debut, Ivan and Boris Levin, looking like a vaudevillian Abbot and Costello styled double act, immediately recount their life story as women disguised as men. Without further ado “Levin and Levin” starts to deliver its history lesson before we've even had time to know, or care, for its two characters. Unconvincing prompts to talk about the past, and to sing some snippets of song, regularly follow. A Fiddler on the Roof styled tale unfolds where neighbours, Ida and Buttie, become brothers Ivan and Boris, for they will be safer disguised as young boys as they attempt to flee persecution. All of which is told with great ingenuity using Matryoshka dolls, a door, and some folded pieces of paper, crafting a clever piece of children’s styled theatre. The children’s theatre sensibility continues as the experiences of the dispossessed children is theatrically conveyed, and undermined, as a tale of the bogeyman. Escaping his clutches and surviving war, the girls travel to Vienna and Paris, seeming to meet every famous person imaginable. Courtesy of Zelda Fitzgerald and Al Jolson, the girls have their ill fated moment on Broadway, after which, unconvincingly, they decide to give it one more chance as Jewish male impersonators in 1930’s Germany. A decision that sees the girls facing their lowest moment whilst attaining the height of their success.
Difficulties distinguishing between character and historical cipher are evident from the outset. While “Levin and Levin” references the spirit of Vaudeville and the music halls, it never adequately recreates it. Moments, as in a Joseph Stalin sketch, hint at what could have been. But far too often it never ignites. Weimar Germany is another case altogether, in which the transformed sisters reveal their true selves with a raunchy ferocity that’s a breathe of fresh air. Yet if the end is more convincing historically and theatrically, dramatically the relationship story is left in tatters. Here, as elsewhere, the end overstays its welcome with a farewell song that goes on far too long. Not the first time music proves to be problematic. If the small orchestra’s impressive playing shows much to be admired, their oppressive score, overwhelming at times like an overpowering accompaniment to a silent movie, left much to be desired. Performances, too, are somewhat conflicted. Writer and performer Aideen Wylde as passive Bubbie sparks at moments, but only fully ignites near the end. Yet when she does, something genuinely sparks to life. George Hanover as the bigger sister, Ida, seems much more at home throughout as the more feminine minded of the duo, being absolutely outstanding during the cabaret scene and bringing it all home with a vengeance. Yet in the end you’re left wondering: why wasn’t it this strong all the way throughout? Perhaps because “Levin and Levin” needs some rigorous and ruthless edits, textually and theatrically. Perhaps because it's never quite sure whether it's a history lesson for Hebrew School, or a tale of two brave and unconventional women. The balance of evidence would favour the former, even if the latter is the far better story.
For some, the political connotations of watching a tale of Jewish persecution and prejudice during the early 20th century, viewed from the perspective of the early 21st-century, will be far more fascinating than the production itself. Palestine, far right Anti-Semitic bigotry, “Levin and Levin” risks being judged politically, either favorably or unfavorably, by issues beyond the production itself. Whatever your political opinion, theatrically there’s an energy and gusto in “Levin and Levin” bursting for release, with a wonderful theatrical imagination on display at times. Which only highlights the times when, dramatically especially, it's not imaginative, or energetic, enough. One senses that with some rigorous pruning "Levin and Levin” could very well shape itself into something that could play Off Broadway with some success. If only it could release it’s entertaining, engaging, and exciting inner being throughout the entirety of the production.
“Levin and Levin” by Aideen Wylde, produced by BrokenCrow runs at The Project Arts Centre as part of Dublin Fringe Festival 2017 until September 23rd.