An interesting take on Fiddler at Drury Lane, but it doesn’t quite work

Photo by Brett Beiner

Director Elizabeth Margolius explains in a program note that her take on Fiddler on the Roof is that it is a “memory play.” (Think something like The Glass Menagerie.) Reading her note, I was excited to see a version of this venerable play that explored it from a new angle, and many parts of the production are indeed fascinating. However, the overall effect for this reviewer is the way that the stagnant, presentational staging affects the focus on family and connection that, along with “tradition,” gives this story its raison d’etre.

Even without reading Margolius’ note, it would be difficult from the start to miss the fact that this is not going to be the Fiddler you might remember. Margolius begins the first scene, as is, well, traditional, with Tevye alone on stage; however, when he is finished with his opening monologue and things open up to include the townspeople of Anatevka, things change. We are introduced to a clump of people who remain tightly bound throughout the opening number, moving so slowly and stealthily downstage that one is simultaneously drawn to them as the embodiment of a tight-knit town and repelled by the machine-like precision that is a contradiction to the message that the song conveys.

Throughout the play, the director maintains this style through scenes that, except in certain—but not all—intimate conversations, are staged so that the characters might as well be on different planets speaking to each other over some invisible radios. The fine acting, for the most part, keeps these scenes alive, but any possibility for us to care about the dissolution of a family, let alone a town, is broken when there are so few connections to see. Margolius is far more likely to show us such connections, at least briefly, in the younger generation, perhaps suggesting that the “traditions” of the town simply don’t allow them. Still, so many presentational tableaus just end up making connections impossible.

One of the notable early examples of the staging overwhelming the mood comes in “Tevye’s Dream,” in which the characters of Grandma Tzeitel (Susan Hofflander) and Fruma-Sarah (Dara Cameron) face upstage from the most upstage part of the set, turning around and moving in the general direction of Tevye and Golde (Janna Cardia) only near the end of the former’s blessing and the latter’s curse. Despite the use of giant Mike Tutaj projections that allow the audience to see their faces the whole time, there is something completely offputting about all of this. Neither Tevye nor Golde ever actually interacts with the “spirits,” minimizing the latter’s terrified response to her husband’s story.

Though Margolius and choreographer Romy Sandhu do everything possible within the director’s well-maintained construct to breathe life into the play, they are almost always foiled by the lack of connection. Only in the wedding dance—which is blatantly about connection, as the notion of men and women dancing together causes a scandal in the town—is the movement much more emotional than the Russian soldier’s “bottle dance” (which anyway is done sans bottles here, as Margolius has also done away with all props for some reason, though a props designer is still listed in the program).

All of this stasis is visualized in Jack McGaw’s scenic design, which has the exterior of Tevye’s tiny house fixed permanently upstage center while the various scrims and screens for projections roll in from the sides. It is easily the least exciting set for this play that I’ve ever seen, but it is certainly consistent with Margolius’ vision.

In addition to the excellent projections, the technical side of this production is strong. Jason Lynch’s lighting design helps portray Anatevka as a town not built for showcasing: even as he allows you to see everything you need to see, there are interesting and realistic shadows and other variations in the light. Linda Roethke’s costumes are impeccable, as is Ray Nardulli’s sound design, which allows the uniformly wonderful singing (aided by music director Chris Sargent) to shine.

The actors, for the most part, do their best within the concept to make things come alive. There is a definite connection between Tzeitel (Emma Rosenthal) and Motel (Michael Kurowski, whose “Wonder of Wonders” moves are one of the play’s highlights). Perchik (Zach Sorrow) and Hodel (Yael Eden Chanukov) are often laden with movements and stage pictures that more closely adhere to Margolius’ theory of the play, but they too manage to find moments, in addition to the aforementioned wedding scene, to illustrate their human connection. Would that Chava (Abby Goldberg) and Fyedka (Grant Killian) had been afforded the same opportunity. Only Janet Elrich Brooks, with her winning portrayal of Yente the matchmaker, consistently rises above the constraints of the blocking to create a living, multi-dimensional character. (Right? Of course right!)

My only acting complaint is with Kaplan’s uninteresting take on Tevye. This is a character who, despite his lowly position in the world, is usually portrayed as clearly (as the song tells us) the “master of the house.” Yet Kaplan’s portrayal, coupled with Margolius’ approach, makes him feel small. There is no real confidence to be found in this Tevye: even in his interactions with his immediate family, his portrayal doesn’t justify the reactions he gets: the fear that Motel feels about him, the positive attitudes of townspeople toward him, etc. Yes, in the grand scheme of things, Tevye is a small, unimportant person whose position in the world makes his outsized “If I Were a Rich Man” dreams sad and frustrating, but I’ve never seen him this impotent within his own home. His rejection of Chava, in this light, feels pathetic rather than sad, though it does have the effect of justifying the rest of the family’s covert, even if painful, acceptance of their sister and daughter.

Overall fine acting matched with interesting design decisions and clear and consistent directorial insight usually means a slam-dunk recommendation. This time, though, I found my enjoyment of the play so often confounded by its style that I ended up focusing only on missed opportunities. A few times, the tableaus that Margolius showed us created such fascinating stage pictures that they almost justified everything else; ultimately, though, this Fiddler on the Roof felt like a missed opportunity itself.

Fiddler on the Roof is now playing at the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook, through March 24. Performance times vary; check the Theatre’s website. For more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com

2 thoughts on “An interesting take on Fiddler at Drury Lane, but it doesn’t quite work

  1. My daughter, and son who played Tevia were very disappointed especially in Tevia who usually carries the show. They were also disappointed in the dream scene. The though the singing was good but the said there
    Was no fiddle. I saw it at Lyric Opera and the excellent productions at OPRF High School. Tevia should not be weak. I am not sure I want to see it.

  2. Wholeheartedly agree with this review — also wished they had stronger dancers so the Russian dance, la Chaim and the bottle dance were rather lackluster.

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