Read to Me
Sheffer’s legacy as theatrical as it is literary
There is no substitute for live performance, but supplements available to us in the digital age are phenomenal and should be tapped. And dare I say, for those of you living in northeast Pennsylvania, need to be tapped. Previously I’ve gushed over the technological advances that have given us the opportunity to experience Met Opera live in HD and dynamically filmed stage productions, including the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Macbeth or Broadway’s Passing Strange and Memphis. But if you spend half as much time in front of a computer screen as I do, your eyes need a rest.
I love music, but I tend to save that for my headphones at the office (this column brought to you by Brian Eno’s Lux). After work, I want storyline. When not wrapped up in an audio book, I turn to podcasts and theater lovers are blessed with choices.
I’ve got programs by L.A. Theatre Works and the American Theatre Wing’s Working in the Theatre downloaded in iTunes, but I honestly prefer the punch of a good short story. I want to focus on PRI’s Selected Shorts today, because in light of the passing of Symphony Space founding director Isaiah Sheffer last week, it seems a shame not to pay tribute to what a remarkable gift he has given us. It’s one that’s been provided weekly and free of charge (all Internet fees, cost of device and electricity to charge it and donations requested aside).
Selected Shorts will carry on without Sheffer (according to a Facebook post shortly before press time), and I point to the Nov. 4 episode featuring Nathan Englander’s “The Twenty-Seventh Man” as a perfect example of why we should all be cheering about that.
The performance of the short story by actor Michael Stuhlbarg is the second part of a program that begins with commentator Hannah Tinti’s interview with Englander (www.nathanenglander.com) and artistic director of The Public Theatre (publictheater.org) Oskar Eustis. The author’s own stage adaptation of The Twenty-Seventh Man – he calls himself an “accidental playwright” – opens at The Public on Nov. 18 after a brief postponement due to Hurricane Sandy power loss. In the interview (the full 16:15 minutes of which is available online), Eustis and Englander pay tribute to another recent profound loss – that of Nora Ephron who “discovered” “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” originally published in the collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, and then coached the author through the adaption of the work to stage.
The story is half-history and half-fable, alluding to ‘The Night of the Murdered Poets’ on which Stalin ordered the execution of thirteen Russian Jews in 1952. It finds twenty-six great writers of Yiddish literature who have been painstakingly rounded up in simultaneous action by the secret police. Among them is an unknown, unpublished twenty-seventh storyteller who may be there because of a clerical error.
“Baffled by his arrest, (Pinchas Pelovits) and his cellmates wrestle with the mysteries of party loyalty and politics, culture and identity, and what it means to write in troubled times… the writers come to realize that even in the face of tyranny, stories still have the power to transcend,” the Public Theatre describes of the stage story.
Whether or not you can make it to Manhattan before Dec. 9 to see that perfomace, you can still marvel in short story that inspired it thanks to Selected Shorts (www.selectedshorts.org/2012/11/the-twenty-seventh-man). The story of Isaiah Sheffer (abridged) can be read in the Nov. 10 issue of The New York Times (www.nytimes.com/2012/11/11/arts/isaiah-sheffer-76-a-founder-of-symphony-space-dies.htm).