Nathan Englander’s, The Twenty-Seventh Man follows the drama of 26 men locked up in prison for writing and publishing in Yiddish in Soviet-era Russia. Whether their speech is political or not doesn’t matter to Stalin, who called for their incarceration. It’s a chilling spectacle, playing at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company through November 6, that showcases four Jewish writers imprisoned for writing in Yiddish and being Jewish intellectuals. The show, loosely based on real-life events, plays with the themes of religious suppression, political scheming and the power of friendship.
Three men are on stage at curtain open: Moishe Bretzky, Yevgeny Zunser and Vasily Korinsky, famous for their novels and poetry, and imprisoned for writing them in Yiddish. But the play isn’t about them. It’s about the fourth man in the jail cell, the 27th man to arrive in the prison, and the only convict who is unknown and unpublished: Pinchas Pelovits, played by Michael Torsch. Instead of being frightened, he is delighted to find himself with his literary heroes. What follows is a discussion of literature, a prison drama and a look into the terror of Stalinist Russia.
I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just say the next 90 minutes of dialogue and dark humor will make you understand the power of the written word in a time when words were prohibited.
The actors began rehearsing for the show in mid-September, about a month before the opening show, and they say with each performance, the humor and tempo changes.
“It’s very sophisticated, there are a lot of important concepts,” says Jôher Coleman, who plays writer Moishe Bretzy. “It’s an exercise in how to be active so [the dialogue] is not just purely visceral.”
Michael Kissin, who plays famous writer, Yevgeny Zunser, says it took the actors a while to find the humor in the play. They spent the first three days of rehearsal interpreting the emotions in the dialogue before diving deeper into interpretation.
“What struck me was that the language of the script seemed to really do a good job of simulating Yiddish,” says actor Skyler Nowinski. He said the play humanizes the position of Jewish intellectuals during the Soviet era. “ I think Korinsky’s character in the show is fascinating because I think we don’t have a lot of examples in plays and books about Jews’ relationship to the Soviet Union at that time,” he adds. “I think the play presents a character that encapsulates the idea of , Oh, I can understand where the Jewish community might have fit in at that time.”
The actors agree it’s because of director Kurt Schweickhardt’s willingness to let the actors guide themselves that makes the production unique. “It’s very much an ensemble creation,” Kissin affirms.
Torsch agrees. “I’m excited to see what the play looks like and sounds like at closing week.”
Want to see it for yourself? Get tickets to this show and others at the MJTC website.