Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, October 2006

If you love theatre, you MUST go and see Better Don’t Talk, and you better had hurry because it is only playing through October 29 at NYSTI!

I make this bold statement not only because Naava Piatka gives a tour de force performance in this one-woman musical she has written, but because the content of the show makes such a strong statement about theatre in specific and the arts in general as a life force.

Piatka, an internationally known writer, actor, artist and workshop presenter in her own right, is the daughter of Chayela Rosenthal, an international star in the Yiddish Theatre in the mid-20th century. Piatka was certainly aware of her mother’s talents and stage career – until a week before her death Chayela Rosenthal was playing the part of Golde in Fiddler on the Roof in her adopted home of Capetown, South Africa – but it wasn’t until after she died and Piatka stumbled upon a suitcase full of sheet music and newspaper clippings that she learned that as teenagers during the holocaust in their native Lithuania, her mother and her brother Leyb, Piatka’s uncle, had written and performed songs in the Vilna Ghetto Theatre. The Theatre was ordered into existence by Jewish Ghetto Police Chief Jacob Gens and performed its first show January 18, 1942.

Leyb Rosenthal had been killed in a concentration camp one day before liberation, and he had been represented by nothing more than a small black and white photograph on her mother’s dressing table during Piatka’s lifetime. Discovering that he had been a gifted songwriter and that the songs that he wrote and that her mother sang were still performed around the world was astonishing, and heart-breaking since her mother had never been able to speak of this time in her life.

This discovery started Piatka on a journey to discover her mother’s voice that led her to create Better Don’t Talk, which she first performed in Boston in 1998 and which she has performed all over the world since.

In the course of 90 intermission-less minutes on stage Piatka plays herself, her mother, and a handful of other characters with whom their lives intersect. She sings her uncle’s powerful and melodic songs in both their original Yiddish and in English, accompanied on an off-stage piano by Michael Musial. And she manipulates and beautiful little marionette of a young ghetto boy named Yisroilik, designed by Helga Puch.

In itself, this versatility and stamina (I did not see Piatka take so much as a sip of water during the course of the play) is theatre, but Piatka takes the audience and is taken herself much further than that by the moving story of that ghetto theatre and its broader implications about what keeps mankind alive.

In a powerful moment mid-way through the show Piatka tells how, when the ghetto theatre was first proposed, some residents protested by putting up posters that read “No theatre in the cemetery,” implying that to act and sing and dance would be grossly inappropriate amidst so much suffering and death. But Chayela Rosenthal replied “When we don’t have theatre, that is when we are dead.” And Leyb wrote a stirring song which Piatka uses to close the show which has the refrain “We will live forever and we’re still here.”

Coming together to sing is a powerful political statement of solidarity and defiance in the face of oppression. I was reminded of that moment in the animated TV special of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas when the Grinch, with his sleigh full of stolen Christmas gifts and decorations, teeters on the pinnacle of Mount Crumpet and pauses to listen to what he assumes will be wails of despair from the Whos as they awaken to discover his noctural plunder of their village. And instead he hears them singing. “It started out slow, and it started to grow,” Dr. Seuss wrote.

I would like to take all these “No Child Left Behind” administrators and say “See? THIS is why every child needs arts education.” These Jews did not keep their sense of purpose and community by reciting their multiplication tables or taking solace in their standardized test scores. They found strength in writing and singing and acting and the communal act of coming together to watch each other perform.

The original production was directed by Joann Green Breuer, but NYSTI producing artistic director Patricia Di Benedetto Snyder has re-staged it on a new set designed for the NYSTI production by Richard Finkelstein. Finkelstein has reduced Piatka’s playing space to a small, raked diamond-shaped platform center stage, with an enormous backdrop formed by a collage of reproduction photographs, news clippings, and other paper ephemera from Chayela and Leyb’s lives. Since Piatka vividly creates character and location using her voice and body, this minimal setting imparts historical information without getting in the performer’s way.

Costume designer Robert Anton has created some new garments for Piatka’s NYSTI appearance as well, but I have to say that I like the dress she was wearing in her publicity stills better. It had a much more authentic 1940’s flavor than the rather modern, but very flattering, burgundy dress Anton has made for her.

Piatka is performing Better Don’t Talk for middle- and high-school audiences all this week, and I would recommend that you bring your teens along with you to see this show. Robert Brustein, Artistic Director, American Repertory Theatre wrote: “Piatka is the first writer to recognize that Jews did not lose their joy in the most ghastly circumstances.” That is the magic of Better Don’t Talk – it makes the horrors of the holocaust plain, but clearly conveys the strength of the human spirit to sustain itself.

The New York State Theatre Institute presentation of Better Don’t Talk runs through October 29 at the Schacht Fine Arts Center on the campus of Russell Sage College, 37 Front Street in Troy, New York. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission and is suitable for ages 12 and up. Call the box office at 518-274-3200 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006

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