There's something about klezmer -- the music of Eastern European Jews -- that makes me homesick for places I've never been and for traditions I was not born to. It so perfectly evokes Jewish culture and its aspects: the food, the warmth, the strong sense of family, the humorous resignation about the baffling nature of life, the darker echoes of persecution. Of course, many of these associations are cliches -- comic book characterizations that are nostalgic in the true sense of the word: a sentimental yearning for something irretrievably lost. The impossibility of going back creates nostalgia's seductive poignancy; that we hate ourselves in the morning makes some of us wary of shows like Shlemiel the First, American Conservatory Theater's season opener.
But Shlemiel, which is based on Isaac Bashevis Singer's play and stories of Chelm, the village inhabited by idiots in Jewish folklore, is determinedly unsentimental. Far from it. It's fresh, clever, fast-paced, and very funny.
Chelm's topsy-turvy world is immediately apparent in Robert Israel's asymmetrical set. There seem to be no right angles anywhere, not even in the doors and windows. The floor, too, buckles and bends to send the players spinning like the dreidel our hero, Shlemiel (Thomas Derrah), is never without.
The curtain rises on a typical morning in Chelm, with Mrs. Shlemiel (Maureen McVerry) having the usual difficulty rousing her lazy fool of a husband from their vertical bed. As she airs her complaints to us in the "Wake-Up Song," she transforms herself from a slender beauty into a well-padded, big-bosomed, babushka-wearing Yiddish housewife. It's the first of many sight gags that keep the humor crisp, wry, and pointedly intelligent.
Shlemiel is summoned by the town's sages, a group best described as the Marx Brothers-plus-two, who want his input on how to stop people from complaining about "conditions." Various suggestions are considered -- including banning the use of the word "conditions" -- until the debate is interrupted by Zalman Tippich (Will LeBow), a rich man who wants to live forever. Move to Chelm, suggests Shlemiel, where no rich person has ever lived and, consequently, has ever died. Gronam Ox (Charles Levin), the wisest man in Chelm, claims this idea as his own, and sends Shlemiel off on a round-the-world tour to spread his dubious wisdom.
Shlemiel sets out, only to succumb to confusion and find himself right back home where he started. Refusing to believe he has thus erred, he decides the world contains two of everything: There is a parallel Chelm, where another Shlemiel has an identical wife and family. That this duplicate wife is irresistibly alluring where the original is a shrewish nag is the source of the show's folksy humor.
Virtually everything works: Singer's original idea, Robert Brustein's adaptation (he added the klezmer music that gives voice to the play's Yiddish soul), Israel's set, the extraordinary costumes by Catherine Zuber, lighting by Peter Maradudin, sound by Christopher Walker, and the fabulous ensemble of actors -- most notably, McVerry, Derrah, and the multitalented Marilyn Sokol, who plays both the foolish "sage" Gittel and his pickle-wielding wife, Yenta Pesha, as well as one of the Shlemiel children.
But David Gordon's staging turns the theater into a Yiddish Tilt-A-Whirl. Actors and musicians race in circles; rugs carry off nonstop talkers; men shed beards and don dresses to turn into women; idiots are wise. And thanks to the recently formed San Francisco Klezmer Experience, Brustein's inspired addition to Singer's play keeps the heart and soul of Yiddish theater alive and well on Geary Street.
Shlemiel the First runs through Oct. 13.