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July, 2006


The Mountain Play-Fiddler On The Roof
By Jeffrey R Smith of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

It is interesting that this year's Mountain Play should start with the words "Tradition, tradition . . . without our tradition our lives would be as shaky as . . . as a fiddler on the roof."
Given the plethora of lifestyle choices confronting Bay Area residents, it seems that any tradition is in imminent danger of being drummed into extinction or obsolescence either by the infinite array of competing possibilities or by the march of time. But, one Marin County tradition continues to survive the evolutionary pressures presented by cable television, the Internet, the gas barbeque grill, the swimming pool and the shopping mall. That enduring tradition, stretching back to 1913, would be the Mountain Play of Marin County.

The Mountain Play owes its survival in part to another enduring Marin County tradition, James Dunn, whose personal tradition of excellence is reflected in every production he directs. This year, Mr. Dunn, the multi award-winning director, brings the multi award-winning musical: FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, to the sylvan stage.

With the Scenic Supervision of Kenneth Rowland, Set Dresser and Properties Designer, Carol Selig attentively recreates the Jewish shtetl of Anatevka within the Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre: A 4000-seat theater, gently and unobtrusively sculpted into the natural contours of the eastern slope of Mount Tamalpais.

While the Pale of Settlement, the historical setting of this musical, is just a fading, ignoble piece of dark Russian-European history, the lessons and conflicts presented in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF will always be a part of the human condition. Tevye, the Dairyman, is the creation of Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. Sholem Aleichem (a pseudonym which literally translates to "peace be upon you") is the creation of Sholem Rabinovich: a state-appointed Jewish clerical functionary in the Ukraine, circa 1894. Tevye was described by Aleichem as the Jewish version of Rousseau's noble savage: "a healthy, broadly built Jew, dark and hairy, hard to tell his age, wearing large boots and a grimy cloak over a warm undershirt, even in the greatest heat . . . Tevye is always eager to talk, loves a folk saying, a proverb, a snippet of Scripture; he's no scholar, but he's no ignoramus either when it comes to Hebrew print."

To his credit, Mr. Dunn has appropriately cast the robust Bruce Vieira, the Zero Mostel of Marin, as Tevye. Mr. Vieira, in addition to matching the physical proportions of Tevye, lends the necessary Biblical and heroic proportions to his character: a poor struggling Dairy Farmer in an obscure, rural community, who is vastly rich in spirit, wisdom and wit: a veritable Solomon of the shtelt.

To Tevye every problem he confronts can be reduced to a simple dichotomy: on one hand is Tradition: presumably the Will of God, and on the other hand there is the will and the interests of the individual. For Tevye, life involves reconciling the two.

Rick Wallace, the choreographer, adds action and the real seasoning to this production. Rick has no left feet when it comes to Jewish or Russian Folk dancing. His curriculum vita includes active memberships in the Khadra International Folk Ballet, the Massenkoff Russian Folk Festival and the Neva Russian Dance Festival. Unless you enjoy flying for 18 hours in coach, you won't see better folk dancing than what Mr. Wallace has honed for this show. Ricka's dance team is fortunate enough to have six specialty dancers, headed by Vladimir Riazantsev, a soloist from the Moseiyev Company and Dave Boyet, a master of Soviet dance styles.

Award winning costume designer, Patricia Polen, who has outfitted the casts of over seventy-five shows, has modestly and authentically adored the cast of this play in folksy Abercrombie-Yiddish attire that would make the Rabbi of Anatevka smile with orthodox approval. And who said that West Marin was devoid of thespian talent?

Tim Ryan of Point Reyes proves to audiences that there are no small parts, only small actors. Tim, cast as Mordcha, keeps the stereotype of the opportunistic, short-shot, innkeeper alive.

Every musical has at least one conspicuously great voice and this show has the mellifluous Nina Josephs as Hodel. Ms Joseph's voice is no musical fluke: she is soon to graduate, with a Bachelor's of Music from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Sandi Weldon as Yente, contributes a disproportionate share of comedy to the show. As the Matchmaker, gossip, kibitzer and general meddling busy body, she is enough to drive anyone off the prying shtelt and into the big city anonymity Vienna.

Given the show is performed al fresca, equity animals are generally part of the cast, this year, Cow, contentedly played by Holstein Cow, is directed by Cow Handler Jim Reid. To everyone's relief Cow kept her performance PG13 and did not require a manure fork. Equestrian Emily Kruger was the Horse Handler that kept the Russian Constable, played by Chad Yarish, tall in his saddle. The Mountain Play is the cement that holds the artistic community of Marin together. The conspicuous quality, unstintingly delivered by everyone involved, is the hallmark of this community masterpiece.

For tickets to what is indisputably one of the West Coast's greatest traditions, call 415 383-1100 or visit the website at _www.MountainPlay.org_ (

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