Boris Aronson and the Avant-Garde Yiddish Theatre, Ben Uri Gallery, London – review

In 1930, designer Boris Aronson left what he saw as the ghetto of New York’s Yiddish Theatre and began a distinguished career on Broadway, working on the premieres of The Crucible, Cabaret, Sondheim’s Follies and Pacific Overtures, and winning eight Tony awards. But in the public imagination he is forever associated with Fiddler on the Roof (1965) which looked back to his roots in shtetl Russia and his training in revolutionary Moscow and Kiev – Fiddler adapted Marc Chagall’s seminal 1920 designs for the Moscow Jewish Theatre, unseen in the west until the 1990s.

According to an intriguing exhibition arriving in London after showings in Paris and Tel Aviv last year, Aronson’s story is not just about assimilation. Rather, he transformed moribund mid-century American theatre by injecting the aesthetic of
the Russian-Jewish avant-garde into stage design, making it a defining element of a production.

He arrived in New York in 1923 and his radical cubo-futuristic and constructivist settings and costumes for Unser Theater (Our Theatre) through the 1920s drew mainstream attention to its Yiddish troupe.

On display here are gouache, watercolour and crayon mural designs where modernism brilliantly meets a folkloric cast of rabbis, Jewish dancers and musicians, and costume and set sketches, some in vibrant colour, others resembling dynamic, three-dimensional black-and-white woodcuts.

For his key early productions – S Ansky’s Day and Night; Ossip Dymov’s Bronx Express – the set was a subway car, opening into an American palace or an eastern European hovel according to the dreams of the main character, who falls asleep while riding home; A. Goldfaden’s The Tenth Commandment and Sholom Aleichem’s Stempenyu – The Fiddler, with distorted cubist renderings of shtetl interiors reminiscent of Marc Chagall.

From Friday until June 20,

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