The title of Avrom Goldfaden’s 1878 musical is slightly misleading. The Sorceress—or, as it was called in the original Yiddish, Di Kishefmakherin— does, indeed, feature a character with a reputation for casting spells. But that character, Bobe Yakhne, doesn’t actually do magic. As she says, “I only do that to cheat money out of the fools that believe in such things.” The sorcery, in other words, is a con. But The Sorceress is an enchanting tale nonetheless, full of humor, wit, and whimsy that’s buoyed by the efforts of a stellar cast and creative team from the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene.
You may know the Folksbiene from its wildly popular Yiddish production of Fiddler on the Roof, which has been celebrated for its authenticity—namely, its presentation of characters that actually sounded like the inhabitants of the real European shtetls that inspired the fictional Anatevka. The Sorceress, meanwhile, is authentic for another reason: it’s the kind of entertainment that those shtetl-dwellers might have viewed and enjoyed. The script is Goldfaden’s Yiddish—though most viewers will probably experience it via the English or Russian supertitles projected onto the stage. Even the orchestrations, which were nearly destroyed by the Nazis, are the fully restored originals. They’re brought to glorious life by a live orchestra under the musical direction of Zalmen Mlotek.
The Folksbiene emphasizes The Sorceress’ merit as a metaphor for “the oppression of innocents using the tools of family separation, human trafficking, and violence.” That may be true, but to the lay viewer, it’s not terribly sophisticated stuff. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s essentially a Yiddish Cinderella story—complete with an evil step-mother (Rachel Botchan) a persecuted heroine (Jazmin Gorsline), and her charming beloved (Josh Kohane). What sets The Sorceress apart from standard fairy tale fodder is its details. These are most apparent in the show’s ensemble numbers, like the scene featuring a riotous game of Blindman’s buff, or the scene set in a local market. (“Oy! A beautiful hen, have you ever seen such a young hen?” boasts one vendor.) The texture of 19th century Romanian Jewish culture is vibrantly tangible in these moments, even as it’s coated in a fantastical sheen, thanks in part to Dara Wishingrad’s set design and Izzy Fields’s rich costumes.
While The Sorceress is very much an ensemble piece, individual performances stand out. Steve Sterner takes an endearing and comedic turn as the peddler Hotsmakh. Gorsline brings some impressive chops to her role as the Cinderella stand-in Mirele. And then there’s Mikhl Yashinsky, who takes Bobe Yakhne’s high camp to a delightful extreme, most memorably through an infectious cackle. The evil sorceress may be a two-dimensional character, but she’s as entertaining as a West Village drag queen.
For the most part, The Sorceress doesn’t show its age. One major exception is a scene set in Istanbul, which is rife with the kind of Orientalism that one might expect of a European show penned in the 19th century. Modern audiences might cringe at the depiction, but it’s one price to pay for seeing a show unearthed from the vault.
The Sorceress is, in fact, the first such show that the Folksbiene has plucked from the Yiddish theater archive as part of its Global Restoration Initiative, which aims to present other little-seen works to the public. It’s an auspicious beginning for the program. In this production, the Folksbiene shows it can restore these works with love and care. Let’s see more of them.