Writings these theatre reviews, I try to feature different aspects of the experience of attending a live stage performance. Having seen two productions of Fiddler on the Roof in the past two years, I was not sure what I might write for our third production, currently at Arena Stage. No need to review the plot for such a familiar musical. No needed to compare a professional production to a high school and community theatre staging of the same script. I would just have to attend the show and wait for something to inspire me. Reading the director’s notes and watching the first few scenes, an idea began to develop.
Fiddler on the Roof is a musical about a village of Russian Jews who face changes in their small world. Much of the play is about the relationship of a father, Tevye, with three of his five daughters, as they fall in love outside of their tradition of arranged marriages. Attending a theatre production is also about relationship. As with any live performance (concert, opera, ballet, etc.), the interaction between the performers and audience is a key factor in the experience of the event.
The energy in the auditorium is the result of that relationship. The timing of lines, punctuation of humor, and how well a tune is sung in the case of a musical, will evoke responses from the audience. That feedback from the audience encourages the performer. This phenomenon cannot be replicated in recorded performances, such as movies, television, or audio reproductions. The effect of those medium are calculated in the cutting room and mixing boards.
While this performer-audience relationship is inherent in live productions, some shows bring more of a sense of connection than others. Fiddler on the Roof is such a musical. While some in the audience may not have been aware, Molly Smith, the artistic director for Arena Stage and director of this music, wanted to accentuate this sense of connection throughout the play. In her notes, she commented about wanting to build on the idea of the “village” for the Arena Stage audience community. Her first step was by selecting Fiddler on the Roof because of its theme of a group of people adapting to world changes that touched their lives.
Later in her notes, she identified a number of changes, from social movements to world politics, which are presenting opportunities and challenges to our “village”. Regional wars and movement of national boundaries draw us into conflicts, occurring continents away. Couples who have bound their lives together are now being given the opportunity to formalize their unions. Ms. Smith mentioned that while preparing for directing Fiddler on the Roof, she also prepared for her wedding with her partner of 24 years. It is not every production that the director makes such a personal connection with the themes in the script.
Before entering the stage space, Arena Stage, in it’s recent remodeling created a social space in the lobby, which connects each of the three stages. The main level is an open area without square corners. Curves lead us to various entrances and exits, whether those be the bathrooms or auditoriums. Along these curving lines is the bar, which encourages patrons to stop and linger before going inside. The upper level of the lobby hosts a restaurant, another space of people to meet and interact. For each play, the restaurant changes its menu to feature foods related to the location of the play. In a subtle way, dinning at the theatre is already introducing us to the atmosphere of the play.
The Fichlander stage, in which Ms. Smith set the musical, is a theatre-in-the-round. This further accentuated the sense of community. Not only can we in the audience respond to events on stage, but when we sit on all sides of the stage, we can see each other. Such staging also requires that the set is limited to avoid blocking sigh-lines from each seat. This production used the four entrances onto the plank-board covered stage. One entrance lead to a platform, raised about three feet above the rest of the stage. Stairs lead down from one side, and a ramp from the other side. This ramp was curved, providing a half-circle that passed another entrance and continued to the third entrance. The planks gave a sense of the porches of the homes and shops, as well as the floors of the houses.
Above the stage, in a spiral around the fly space, were hung another series of planks. These could have represented the roof-tops, on which the fiddler opens the play. They could have also represented the world events that swirled around the Russian village. Distant events would prompt the czarist government to expel the Jewish villagers. The solid planks of the stage would be tossed apart. We in the audience sat above the stage, but below that spiral of planks. Decision of distant leaders affect us as much as history.
This image of a world swirling around the events in the village of the stage is built upon in several scenes, with the choreography of the singers. A tradition in Jewish social dance is the circle dance. Men and women dance in separate, and sometime concentric circles. During the opening song, Tradition, the villagers create such circles around the stage. These circles continually change in size and direction, forming ever smaller groups as the “Papa’s”, “Momma”, “Sons”, and “Daughters” each take their turn at a verse, extolling each’s role in the village.
During Sabbath Prayer, the family has gathered at the table to light the sabbath candles and pray before dinner. They have invited two guests, Motel who will eventually marry Tzeitel, and Perchik whom Hodel will follow to Siberia. The stage lights dim to accentuate this gathering. As our eyes adjust to the low light, we notice that in addition to the pair of candles glowing on the table, above the back row of the seating area are pairs of candles circling us. We are as much at this sabbath table as is the family.
Before the intermission, these circles occur again during the wedding party scene. But, this time a pogrom disrupts the spiral of the village, as the local constable and military carries out the orders from St. Petersburg to damage Jewish homes and businesses. In the final scene, the villagers follow this circular pattern around the stage. They move slowly, carrying their possessions as they disperse from the village to destinations around Jerusalem, Warsaw, Krakow, New York, and Chicago. Rather than split off and disappear into the darkness of the four stage exits, they exit through the audience. As individuals, couples or families, they step off the stage to climb the steps of the aisles. We will follow them out of the theatre, on those same aisles after the curtain call.
Viewing this range of evidence that Ms. Smith wanted to foster a sense of community among the audience members, this raises the questions of “why?” People attend stage productions for many reasons. Is being part of a “village” one of them? While Fiddler on the Roof has celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, it portrays events from over one-hundred years ago. How do the fictionalized lives of a group of shtetl Jews related to well-educated, upper-income theatre patrons in Washington, D.C.?
We need to look no further than the news of the past year to see that events here and elsewhere in the world are swirling around us, threatening to disrupt our village. And, I would argue that these events relate to each other. We are a world struggling with the concept of conflicting traditions. Is President Putin’s non-war in western Ukraine much different from the Czar’s decrees to clear the villages of Jews? Is same-sex marriage much different from Tzeitel and Motel wanting to marry because of their love for each other? Is the Islamic State’s war of genocide (which currently has resulting in about 80% of their victims being of “the wrong” Muslim practices) much different from what Stalin and Hitler would carry out a generation after the setting of this musical.
The sadness of Fiddler on the Roof comes from knowing the future for the expelled villagers, as they walked past us into the dark auditorium aisles. Yente would spend Passover in Jerusalem, which even this year is under threat of random missiles and covert tunnels funded by Hamas. Tzeitel and Motel would take their infant to Warsaw, planning to rejoin Tevye and Golde in New York when the could afford passage. But, they more likely were relocated to the Warsaw Ghetto before dying in a concentration camp. Hodel would follow Perchik to Siberia, mostly likely never being released from the Russian prison system. Chava and Fyedka would leave Russia for Krakow, most likely to starve as the Nazi and Russian armies pushed east and west numerous times.
The joy of Fiddler on the Roof come from knowing that some would escape to New York and Chicago. Their lives would be hardship for them, the relatives who would take them in and communities that would support them. They would gather their traditions to form new villages. Those traditions would influence how the world continues to turn, spin, and swirl around us. This continual circling can be confusion, or a dance, depending on whether we trip or keep our step moving.
I heard a psychology study, recently, which concluded that people who make an effort to interact with other people, even with unfamiliar people in public places, report more satisfaction and sense of community. The main deterrent to such interactions were cell phones and electronic devices, which send a message that “I’m busy”. Next to me at Arena Stage, sat a 10-year-old boy. As you can imagine Fiddler on the Roof has become a “family show”. During intermission, I noticed that he was not interacting with anyone, and his parents were on their cell phones. I decided to try the experiment. I leaned over, “Have you ever seen a play on this type of stage?”, “Nope”. “Kind of cool how you can see everyone else.” “Uh-hu”. Well, there’s a start on making a village.