Stage Designs of Richard Finkelstein

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Richard Finkelstein
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Harrisonburg, VA 22801

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Better Don't Talk  A One woman show, by and performed by Naava Piatka, about her mother and star of the Yiddish Theatre and Broadway, Chayela Rosenthal. Presented by The New York State Theatre Institute in the fall of 2006. Scenery Design is by Richard Finkelstein. Costumes by Robert Anton, and Lighting Design John McLaine

 
Yiddish Theatre piece by Naava Piatka, Better Don't Talk, with scenery design by Richard Finkelstein Designer Statement:

This production was a literal labor of love. Naava Piatka wrote it and performed it in honor the memory of her mother Chayela Rosenthal, star of the Yiddish Theatre in the Vilna Ghetto, and later a star of the stage in South Africa and on Broadway. The show also profiles her uncle, composer Leyb Rosenthal.  The work is quite touching. It of course touches on the many horrors of the Holocaust, but it also is an uplifting piece about survival and spiritual renewal.

The title of the piece, Better Don't Talk, refers to the silence so common  from survivors of the Holocaust. Naava was not able to learn details of her mother and uncle's past until after her mother's death when she started to sort through the thousands of scraps of paper her mother and father had squirreled away, records of this period from notes taken in the concentration camp to family photos to newspaper accounts to journals to manuscripts in six different languages from Hebrew and Yiddish to French, Russian, German, and even Afrikaans.

Since the primary research existed, and is central to this work of truth, I paid a visit to Naava's wonderful home which overlooks the skyline of New York to see her treasure trove of family scraps first hand. I was bowled over first by the amount of it, and secondly to the incredible historical significance.

I brought my high-resolution camera and photographed 997 artifacts from her collection of materials, and these photographs formed the basis of the set. The scraps of paper that Naava discovered in real life served as pieces

 of a puzzle, gaining meaning as the facts gleaned from the scraps of paper began to be seen in context alongside the revelations contained in the other scraps.  At the start of the show, Naava is swimming in the sea when when she learns of her mother's death half a world away.  In this I saw a link as spiritually she was swimming in a sea of these scraps of paper.

So I literally created a sea of these papers, with a platform in the center of them to serve as a spiritual life raft. At the start of the show when she is seen swimming, it is through these papers as the central papers are made of scrim. Later as she pulls the papers from her suitcase the parallels are unmistakable.  There is also in this a wonderful juxtaposition of scale in all of this as the papers are at once tiny but with enormous spiritual and emotional significance.

The play on scale has a parallel in the production with Naava's marionette work.

Yiddish Theatre piece by Naava Piatka, Better Don't Talk, with scenery design by Richard Finkelstein

The setting as it appears on stage as the audience enters. Note from the last photo on this page how close we came to the initial conceptual rendering.

Yiddish Theatre piece by Naava Piatka, Better Don't Talk, with scenery design by Richard Finkelstein
Depicted here is a moment in the concentration camps with a wonderful film-noir style shadow provided by John Mclaine right onto our paper "scraps"
 

Yiddish Theatre piece by Naava Piatka, Better Don't Talk, with scenery design by Richard Finkelstein
As outlined earlier, the depictions on the drop are from real artifacts from the story. These would illuminate at the appropriate time. The paper scrap highlighted in the background is from a poster for one of Chayele's great stage productions as Naava recounts that moment in her mother's history.
 

Yiddish Theatre piece by Naava Piatka, Better Don't Talk, with scenery design by Richard Finkelstein
Here you can see how a relationship lives between mother and daughter, and is reflected not only in the script, but through scenery and lighting as well.

Yiddish Theatre piece by Naava Piatka, Better Don't Talk, with scenery design by Richard Finkelstein

Two views of Naava with her puppet Yisraelik from her uncle's song by that name. Here is what Naava writes (in a note to me) about the origins of the marionette:

"[this was]  an artistic collaboration between myself and Helga Muller, a daughter of a Nazi mass murderer, who publicly denounces and atones for her parent's role in the war. That's what I find so inspiring, that in a new generation, 'enemies' dissolve and new cooperation can be found. "

Yiddish Theatre piece by Naava Piatka, Better Don't Talk, with scenery design by Richard Finkelstein

Yiddish Theatre piece by Naava Piatka, Better Don't Talk, with scenery design by Richard Finkelstein
Two more general views of the stage

Yiddish Theatre piece by Naava Piatka, Better Don't Talk, with scenery design by Richard Finkelstein
 

Yiddish Theatre piece by Naava Piatka, Better Don't Talk, with scenery design by Richard Finkelstein

This is one of a number of conceptual renderings that I created as part of the design process. In the renderings I undertook not only to define the space, but to also suggest ways in which the scenery and lighting could interact.