VENUE #2: CSV Flamboyan
Show seen: Fri 12 @ 5
Remaining performances: Fri 19 @ 2 Sat 20 @ 9 Sat 27 @ 2:15
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)
A picture bride survives an unbearable childhood in Russia and a brutally harsh North Dakota family of in-laws and winter before things become better.
If this logline strikes you as surprisingly inactive for a dramatic story, you’ve identified the central problem in the one-person play “Rachel Calof.”
Teachers of narratives—whether it’s a play, movie, short story, novel, or even a memoir or nonfiction narrative destined for a magazine—all agree: If your story has a protagonist, the protagonist has to actively resolve the plot’s complications (or fail trying). Jack Hart, in his excellent book “Storycraft” says, “when you’re looking for a protagonist, search for the person who makes things happen.” Rachel Calof, it turns out, is no protagonist.
The play is based on a book, “Rachel Calof’s Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains” (Indiana University Press, 2009) that in turn is based on a hand-written memoir Calof’s family found after she died, augmented by “scholarly essays that provide historical and cultural background,” according to IUP press materials.
In childhood, Calof, whose mother died when she was four, is bounced like a pinball between a thoughtless and cruel father, a thoughtfully cruel step-mother, and an imperious and uncaring great-uncle who, as Calof approaches marrying age, wrenches her from a growing friendship and love with a village butcher boy by sending her to America to marry a total stranger to the family.
In America, Calof is an impeccably passive fiancee and then wife and daughter-in-law. Her mother-in-law, by turns superstitious and just stupid, but always domineering, would make one long for the violently cruel step-mother.
Writer Ken LaZebnik shows almost no awareness of the need to make Rachel Calof at least somewhat the mistress of her own fate. It’s left to the music and lyrics (by Leslie Steinweiss) to show us a Rachel acting on her own initiative, pathetically fashioning a lamp out of mud and butter as the fuel. To be sure, in on lone, belated scene LaZebnik has Rachel saying no to the ridiculous demands of her husband, himself laughably submissive to his mother. It’s not enough. Every good thing that happens to Rachel—the visit by a neighbor to Rachel and her six-week old baby, left alone in a tiny shack; the declaration by the shochet that the ailing post-partem Rachel is allowed to eat unkosher ox meat; the children she is allowed by her husband to have—happens to her.
The narrative is bookended by Rachel’s desire, and eventually resolve, to visit her daughter in Seattle. Stepping across the threshold without her husband’s permission is apparently LaZebnik’s idea of the decisive act of an active protagonist. It’s not enough, and not just because all we see is a resolve; it comes 85 minutes and 30 years too late in the story. Worse, with a flat inactive protagonist, “Rachel Calof” almost inevitably has no other interesting characters either. Everyone, especially the husband and his mother, are flatly cruel and stupid, albeit hardworking.
There’s much to enjoy in Rachel Calof—the hardships of homesteading are novel and engrossing to a modern audience, and Kate Fuglei’s acting is inspired, her Russian-Jewish accent letter-perfect, and her singing voice is stunningly clear. In the words of IUP, “her narrative [is] both unique and a representative western tale.”
It’s not possible to rewrite a show from the audience, nor is it a critic’s place to do do, but it’s impossible not to note that the protatonist-confrontation-resolution structure is not the only one available to the author, nor is Rachel the only protagonist available.
The story as it actually seems to exist on the page’s of Calof’s memoir is one of a family with almost insurmountable challenges of culture, abject poverty, pride, and jealousy, finally and reluctantly uniting to defeat the greater enemy of North Dakota’s unrelentingly grim and nearly fatally harsh winters. In that story the husband’s admirable qualities of hard work and fealty to family would at least briefly shine, and the mother-in-law, enduring 40-below winters at the end of her life and, like Moses, given only a view of the promised land, might at least evoke our sympathy.
[more fringe 2011 reviews here]