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Review of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s play “Enemies: A Love Story” at Lviv Theater

Vladyslava Moskalets

I was one of the last among my friends to see Isaac Bashevis Singer’s play “Enemies: A Love Story” this winter. Most of my colleagues from work, members of Jewish organizations in Lviv, and just ordinary theater lovers had already seen it and had lively discussions about it. Yiddish plays are not staged in theaters very often, so the Lviv public, especially the segment interested in Jewish culture, was intrigued. Lviv’s Maria Zankovetska Theater, where the play was performed, has 785 seats. That evening, every single one of them was occupied. The play premiered on November 23, 2023 and is still running. The audience was very diverse; people even brought their children, although the story about the spiritual search of a depressed character after the Holocaust is not very child-appropriate. Going to the theater or movie theater during the war is a risky business — when the air raid siren goes off, the show stops and actors and audiences are told to run for the bomb shelter. When this happens, audience members get their money back for the tickets, but they aren’t able to see the show. I was lucky enough to see the show without interruption.

The stage director of ”Enemies: A Love Story”, Maksym Holenko, who previously worked in Odesa, was named the new director of the The Maria Zankovetska Theater in Lviv in summer 2023. He explained that he wanted to present the play to Lviv audiences because it touches on themes of life after war. The play is an adaptation of an Isaac Bashevis Singer novel, which was first published in The Jewish Daily Forward in 1966 under the title “sonim, di geshikhte fun a libe” and then translated into English in 1972. The plot of “Enemies: A Love Story” revolves around Holocaust survivors trying to start a new life in the USA. The main character, former Talmudic scholar and current book-seller in New York, Herman Broder (played by Yurii Khvostenko), is torn between three women: he lives with the Polish woman Jadwiga (Anastasiia Yevtushenko), who hid him from the Nazis. Jadwiga converted to Judaism and does her best to be a good Jewish wife, and Herman feels obliged to her because she saved him. Hovewer, he has also a lover, passionate woman Masha (Diana Kalandarishvili), who is also a Holocaust survivor and lives with her mother. Masha, in turn, has a husband from whom she is separated, but not divorced. And then, to make things more complicated, Tamara (Rymma Zyubina), Broder’s ex-wife, appears unexpectedly. She survived the Holocaust and then the Stalinist camps, lost two children and became cynical and hopeless. Herman Broder is confused and unable to make any decisions. He is haunted by memories of the war, especially of his children who perished in the Holocaust. At the same time, he is depressed and has turned against God and religion. The vaudeville-like plot of the play and Broder’s attempts to navigate these relationships are quite comical. But we soon understand that all of the characters’ attempts to have normal human relations reveal emptiness and trauma they live with after the tragedies they endured. They try to understand the meaning of their suffering, revealing a whole range of views — from deep religiosity to disbelief.

This play is a good example of how Maksym Holenko, in his new position as a theater director, envisions the reform of the theater. The production impresses with complicated scenography with a turning set, falling snow and elaborate special effects. The play is spectacular due to the technical innovations and the accompanying music. The revolving stage helps to convey the time span, constantly changing between American reality and the memories of the Holocaust. In the novel, Herman Broder, who was a Talmudic scholar before the war, sells books in New York. The director decided to use hundreds of books as backdrop in the revolving set to symbolize the intellectual world that Herman has left behind. They are just a backdrop to his life, emphasizing his disbelief in God.

The actors speak Ukrainian with almost no use of Yiddish words. This sets the show apart from the usual Jewish-themed plays in Ukrainian theaters, which tend to overemphasize the elements of Jewish culture. The only Yiddish song is “Papirosn,” which Masha sings at her wedding. Another episode quoting a dance by the Batsheva Dance Company to “Echad Mi Yodea” seems out of place and difficult to understand, though spectacular to watch. One of the interesting language choices was to have the Polish character, Jadwiga, speak Polish mixed with Ukrainian, which is easily understood by the Lviv audience and adds to the comic effect. Taking all this into account, the play exoticizes Jews much less than when Ukrainian theaters perform, say, Sholem Aleichem, and therefore the story feels more relevant and closer to the ordinary viewer.

The play was staged after the beginning of the full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine, which is reflected in the staging. For example, at the beginning there is a line: “If Hitler dies, there are one hundred and forty million ready to take his place,” which was greeted with applause. In the original, of course, it was only “millions”. There are several such moments and decisions in the play; for example, when Nazi soldiers appear in Broder’s memories of the war, one of them speaks German, while the other repeats the sentences in Russian. Thanks to this, the play takes on a completely different dimension: it ceases to be a story about the Holocaust and instead encourages Ukrainian audiences to rethink our losses and how we live with our traumas.

In contemporary Ukrainian bookstores, theaters, and cinemas, war themes often appear. Although some people feel the need to see something entertaining to distract themselves from the reality of war, many are looking for experiences similar to their own. Tickets for such films as “20 Days in Mariupol” sell out very quickly. But this interest is spreading to other wars as well. One of the best-selling books is Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” (1946), about the experience of surviving concentration camps. Watching and reading about war is a painful but therapeutic process that helps us understand our feelings better.

Therefore, Bashevis Singer’s play takes on new meaning and relevance for Ukrainian audiences. The play resonates with many issues that we discuss today and which keep worrying us. The first is the knowledge that someone is trying to destroy us. The use of Russian instead of German by the Nazi officers may elicit a nervous laugh from the audience, but it was a very powerful tool to remind us of the evil that threatens our lives. The sense of uprootedness is the other thing that may have felt relatable to people displaced by the war. Herman Broder has a job and a life, but it is not a job and a life he planned, not the relationships he planned. Another one is differing experiences during the war. Much like the characters in Singer’s story who argue about who suffered more during the war, Ukrainians in different parts of the country or displaced abroad, on the front lines or under the rockets, feel that the war divides us.

The reaction of the theater audience and the reviews that appeared in the Ukrainian press are mostly very positive. They emphasize that the play resonates with the problems of Ukrainians today, such as the loss of home, survivor’s guilt, and the comparison of traumas. Critical voices are concerned about the plot of the play, or of Bashevis’s novel itself, which depicts female characters orbiting a man. Those criticisms notwithstanding, I wonder if this play might open a path to bringing more Yiddish classics into our theaters.

MLA STYLE
Moskalets, Vladyslava. “Review of Isaac Bashevis Singer's play "Enemies: A Love Story" at Lviv Theater.” In geveb, April 2024: https://ingeveb.org/blog/isaac-bashevis-singers-play-enemies-a-love-story-at-lviv-theater.
CHICAGO STYLE
Moskalets, Vladyslava. “Review of Isaac Bashevis Singer's play "Enemies: A Love Story" at Lviv Theater.” In geveb (April 2024): Accessed Jun 22, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vladyslava Moskalets