NEW YORK — The National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene’s 104th season (not a typo! Mazel tov!) is called “Spiritual Resistance.” The theme works in parallel to the new exhibit, “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away,” currently at the theater company’s home, the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Tribute to the Holocaust in lower Manhattan.
While NYTF (friends are allowed to call it NYTF) is best known for producing works in Yiddish (like last year’s very successful “Fiddler on the Roof” adaptation, now touring) “Spiritual Resistance” kicks off with an unusual but sensational pick. “Hannah Senesh (a play with music and song)” is a one-woman show about the life of a young Jewish woman from Budapest who died a war hero fighting Nazis as a British paratrooper. She emigrated to pre-state Israel in 1939, worked on Kibbutz Sdot Yam then joined the Haganah on a secret mission to Yugoslavia.
But those are just the facts and dates. She was also a poet (following the footsteps of her late father Béla, a celebrated playwright) and kept diaries. The play, written by David Schechter and first produced in 1984, takes her words to walk the line between her forward-facing activism and her interior longings.
The story traces Senesh from the age of 13 to her tragic martyrdom 10 years later. A marvelous young actress named Lexi Rabadi commands the stage with just her presence and a few simple props for a full 90 minutes. It is a full workout performance that, if there’s any justice in the world, will greatly advance her career.
I spoke with writer Schechter, who directed Rabadi in this latest production. An edited transcript of our conversation is below.
The original New York production of this play was 34 years ago, now it’s one of Folksbiene’s rare non-Yiddish productions. How did this happen?
The Associate Artistic Director at Folksbiene, Motl Didner, saw the show off-Broadway when he was a teenager, loved it and never forgot it. He said he always wanted to mount it some day, and now that day has come.
Though there have been productions of this show in the interim, how do you feel about this story and its relation to 2019?
The political zeitgeist makes it timely. It’s about people not sitting by idly. It has a resonance not just in our country but in the world in terms of growing racism and anti-Semitism. It speaks to the need to take action, either in the voting booth or community organizing. It hasn’t yet reached the point of needing to fight, and hopefully it won’t, but that isn’t to say there hasn’t been violence.
Hannah was an extraordinary hero because the times demanded it, and she rose to the occasion. We’re being called again to get out of our comfort zone.
When did you become aware of Hannah’s story?
I did an adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story “Gimpel the Fool” at La Mama, a prestigious experimental theater in New York City. Singer loved it. He came a couple of times and wrote me a lovely letter. After that people would come to me with other Jewish project ideas. This happens, you know, when you have a success with a certain type of thing, people will respond and say you should do more of the same.
Anyway, one person brought me a copy of “The Diary of Hannah Senesh” and I related to her struggle of wanting to be an artist but also have an impact on the world. I had a clear vision of how to express this internal drama.
One of her poems has a line where she’s wishing the truth could be a white cloth that she could spread out for all the world to see. So I thought “what if I could give her her cloth?” It’s the central image, first as a piece of fabric when she’s making a dress, then as a picnic blanket, then a flag, then the sea, then sand when she gets to Palestine, then laundry at the kibbutz, then her parachute and, finally, her body at the end.
We toured the show in Israel, and brought it to Sdot Yam, her kibbutz. Her brother George was there. Afterwards he came to me and said he was angry when he heard we were making the show and I didn’t consult with him and his mother, but then said, “You were right not to, because we’d be hovering over you to make sure you got every fact exactly right.” But what he said was, “You’ve made of my sister’s life a poem,” which was all I ever hoped for.
Well, that had to have been gratifying.
Absolutely. After George, we performed it for Catherine, the mother. And of course at the beginning and end the actress plays Hannah’s mother, describing some of the story, describing her daughter, then flashes back. So here we were in the seniors home in Haifa with Catherine Senesh 10 feet away in the audience. And the actress is on stage playing Catherine Senesh. And speaking to her about her own daughter, then playing her daughter. It was life and art spinning around. Afterwards Catherine came up and said to her “You are my second daughter!” and, well, everybody was crying.
Have there been changes in the show over the years?
We maintain the theatricality. I don’t show a big parachute sequence, or the torture sequence. Her mother doesn’t even describe it too much, she just says — “They were not kind to her” — and we let you fill in the blanks. We used to use a tent, now we just use a trunk with a candle on it. Simplifying. I think as people get older you tend to simplify.
In 1988 there was a movie called “Hanna’s War” about Hannah Senesh that Menahem Golan made, wondering if you saw it?
I saw it.
Well… you know… [sighs]. I remember thinking it exploited the torture, felt like overkill. Anyway [laughing] you ask an artist what they think of somebody else’s version and, well, they are going to have a reaction.
But I did like a documentary about Hannah called “Blessed is the Match.” And it had some recreations in it, mixed with documentary footage.
It’s funny, when our show was off-Broadway we had the theater rights but not the film rights, and those were about to expire. We were hoping that they would expire, so if someone wanted to they could adapt our play. And then the last week that Golan had them he announced he was making “Hannah’s War.” We’ve always wondered if our play had some influence on that. Who knows?
Tell me about casting. It’s a one-woman show.
The role requires courage and stamina. We want to give a visceral feeling of heroism, just by experiencing what she goes through – and there’s a lot. There’s calisthenics and parachuting and dancing. It’s also very emotional. She has to go through a marathon every night, and Lexi Rabadi is just fantastic.
We saw about 300 people. It was tough to find her. But it’s one of those things: When the right person walks in you know it. She’s very skilled and charismatic and spiritual. But also grounded, which is what Hannah is. I just couldn’t wait to work with her. She’s a young woman, but also plays the older woman, the mother, too. She can pull it off.
It’s interesting because her father is Jordanian. She is not actually Jewish. But we say her soul is Jewish. You don’t have to be Jewish to portray this woman, I always say.
Listen, I don’t get a chance to talk to you every day, and I was reading your bio and I see that you once studied under Leonard Bernstein. This interview is for The Times of Israel and we care about legends like Leonard Bernstein. Tell me your Leonard Bernstein story.
I studied with him at a New York University program called “The Creation of Musical Theater.” It was a small class and you had to jump through all kinds of hoops to get into it. You’d get to do workshops with different teachers and one was Leonard Bernstein and, like you say, it’s “Oh My God, it’s Leonard Bernstein!”
So this is my Leonard Bernstein story: he loved to play games. There was one game, I guess it was called “Categories.” You’d start a rhythm with your hands, we’d all be in a circle, clapping. And you would have to say something on the beat. So he’d have us all around saying the names of operas. If you can’t think of one on the beat you were out. And we’d play for hours. He was obsessed. He wouldn’t let us leave until someone had won.
That’s my story. I just found it so amusing that of all things he was so obsessed with this game.
“Hannah Senesh (a play with music and song)” runs through August 18 at the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene at the Edmond J. Safra Hall at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. Tickets are available to purchase on their website.