“I’m speaking English?” asks Loyfer (Shane Baker) at the opening of The Megile of Itzik Manger. Then, looking at an elderly member of the audience, he says, I’m guessing, “From now on—in Yiddish,” for the supertitles had not yet started. Wearing a purple pinstripe suit and a top hat, and with the ease and charisma of Joel Grey in Cabaret, Mr. Baker guides us through a phenomenal Purim spiel, one that begins by promising to make you laugh and cry and is not too far from the mark.
The story, for the gentiles: the Persian King Akheshveyresh (Stephen Mo Hanan), whose nose is about as red as W.C. Fields’, orders the queen, Vashti (Rebecca Keren), to bare herself before the guests of one of his lavish, never ending parties. She refuses and is—of course—executed. Vashti is replaced by Esther (Stacey Harris), a Jewish woman, but the peacefulness of royal life does not last long, because Homen (Jonathan Brody), an advisor with a grudge, proposes murdering “the kikes and the kikes and the kikes” (that quotation, I believe, is not in The Book of Esther). For some reason, the king agrees, and Esther’s uncle Mordkhe (also Mr. Brody) quickly devises a plan to save The Tribe, guaranteeing that Homen will be mocked at Purim for millennia to come.
With a handmade aesthetic that recalls but surpasses the cardboard props in the Purim plays of your youth, a cast of dedicated singers and vaudevillians, and a band that rocks the klezmer through the curtain call, The Megile is a loving, nostalgic carnival of a production that is irresistibly enjoyable. And though the emotions are broad, the immediacy of the biblical story is hinted at in a brilliant framing device: the year is 1937 and the troupe performing is a group of Jewish Poles who have pitched their tent in Warsaw for one thousand years. The following decade will witness a massive pogrom for the mechanical age—one that eclipses any conceived of by the authors of the Bible—and this time Esther will walk into the gas chambers while Homen will dodge his trial by eating a bullet. Still, to characterize the play as a post-Holocaust reading of Purim is to overemphasize only one of its points; largely, it is a delightful celebration of Jewish ingenuity and tradition and one that will leave you feeling as warm and light-headed as that schicker king.