Anatevka Is Reborn at Arena

A Haunting Fiddler to Savor
Photograph By
Margot Schulman

Jonathan Hadary as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. 

Shakespeare said “All the world’s a stage,” but with every Arena production I become more convinced of the opposite: The Fichlander Stage is all the world. From the plains of Oklahoma to the drawing rooms of London, there’s no place on Earth that Arena artistic director Molly Smith can’t conjure in this deceptively compact space. With Fiddler on the Roof, she works her magic again, transforming Fichlander’s humble boards into a Russian shtetl and transporting both actors and audience from 2014 to 1905 and then, most profoundly, back to the present again. 

It all begins with Joseph Stein’s endearing book, Jerry Bock’s stirring music and Sheldon Harnick’s spot-on lyrics that so vividly capture the culture, religion, humor, ethic and history of the tiny village of Anatevka, in a show that feels as fresh today as when it opened 50 years ago. Realized in Todd Rosenthal’s evocative set, Anatevka is encircled by a path with no beginning or end, leading deep into the bowels of the stage and soaring overhead in a floating platform where the ever-present fiddler (Alex Alferov) is perched.  

It follows with the introduction of our appointed ringmaster, host and hero: Jonathan Hadary as Tevye the dairyman. While the lumbering, larger-than-life Zero Mostel originated the role, Hadary claims it for his own, lending a sprightly, whimsical, almost elfin quality that he brilliantly blends with the gravitas of “the Papa.” As his more practical wife Golde, Ann Arvia is the perfect counterbalance to Hadary, bringing just the right mix of sternness and sentimentality that illuminate how each spouse anchors the other. 

“In our little village of Anatevka,” Hadary says, “every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck.” Then he leads the audience on a journey that takes him from the security and timelessness of a life founded on “Tradition!”—trumpeted by a cast of villagers confident in their preordained roles as a papa, mama, son or daughter—to the complete dissolution of his home, community and Anatevka itself. 

Along the way his three eldest daughters, sweetly but willfully embodied by Dorea Schmidt, Hannah Corneau and Maria Rizzo, chip away at this foundation, maintaining love and respect for Tevye while taking charge of their futures in unthinkable ways. As Tzeitel, Schmidt cracks the mold of the dutiful daughter by choosing her own husband, but still pleads affectingly with Tevye for permission to do it. As Hodel, Corneau stops short of asking permission to marry the revolutionary Perchik (Michael Vitaly Sazonov), but still seeks Tevye’s blessing. It’s Rizzo as Chava who smashes the mold altogether, stealing away with the Russian Fyedka (Kyle Schliefer) to marry outside her faith. Under Smith’s direction, these romances are subtly and skillfully revealed, with furtive glances and brief exchanges that signal when each daughter has found her soul mate.

As these domestic developments unfold, the songs of Harnick and Bock overlay multidimensional meanings: in the rethinking of marriage from a girl’s dream come true to a high-stakes gamble in “Matchmaker, Matchmaker”; in the contemplation of affluence that a poor man can never hope to have in “If I Were a Rich Man”; in the epic significance of becoming engaged to the woman you love in “Miracle of Miracles,” beautifully rendered by Joshua Morgan. There’s a reason for generations Fiddler’s songs have left an indelible impression on its audiences, and in the expressive singing of this cast they are as inspiring as ever.

Now add the choreography of Parker Esse, who has become a singular expert in converting classic two-dimensional choreography into circular dances that make the Fichlander’s nosebleed seats some of the best for viewing the masterfully integrated movements of the cast. His work retains Jerome Robbins’ signature bracketed arms, finger clicking, kicking and stomping adapted from authentic Jewish and Russian folk dancing, while infusing them with athleticism and grace that mesmerize audiences watching from every side of the stage.  

Still, Fiddler would be almost quaint were it not for the ominous undercurrent of more dangerous social change, evinced in Perchik’s rebellion and ultimate imprisonment in Serbia, and the local constable’s warnings to Tevye about the pogrom and eventual eviction to come. 

When the constable asks Tevye, “How much time do you need to sell your house and all your household goods?,” Tevye replies, “Why should I sell my house? Is it in anybody’s way?” Of course not; nor does it have any value. And this is what makes the play so intensely relevant no matter when it’s produced. Instead of focusing on a more notorious genocide that can so easily be placed in a time capsule with a label of “Never again!,” Fiddler is about the kind of oppression that barely earns a footnote in American history books. It’s gone on for thousands of years, and it goes on today, whenever innocent people without money or power are driven from their homes for no other reason than because of who they are. 

As they pack their bags and begin their separate journeys, all of the villagers pay tribute to their shtetl, singing lovingly of “underfed, overworked Anatevka.” But finally, in a declaration of both resignation and hope, Golde brings herself to say, “Eh, it’s just a place.” By showcasing the particular charms and universal qualities of this village and the people who made it their home, Arena movingly recreates every home ever lost, and all of the homes yet to be found.

Fiddler on the Roof, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater through January 4, 2015

Jonathan Hadary as Tevye and the company of Fiddler on the Roof.
(L to R) Hannah Corneau as Hodel, Dorea Schmidt as Tzeitel and Maria Rizzo as Chava in Fiddler on the Roof.

Barbara Wells is a writer and editor for Reingold, a social marketing communications firm. She and her husband live on Capitol Hill. 

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