theatre review: Roots…Shmoots

Posted: March 24, 2010 in Theatre & Event Reviews and Interviews

Roots … Shmoots

Starring Saul Reichlin. 

at The Theatre on The Bay until 27 March. ASTRID STARK reviews

First published in The Cape Times, 24 March 2010

A journey of a lifetime.

There can hardly be a more suited venue than the cosy Theatre on The Bay for Saul Reichlin’s one-man performance of Roots … Shmoots! The only bits missing were blankets and marshmallows dunked in hot chocolate.  Reichlin’s performance reminds us of an era of very simple but evocative storytelling that is hard to come by these days.  He has taken the stories of leading Yiddish author and playwright, Sholom Aleichem, and dramatised them into short, provocative sketches.  Some might better remember Aleichem for his stories about Tevye the Milkman that were used in the musical Fiddler on the Roof.  In Roots … Shmoots!  Reichlin describes the journey of Aleichem’s return to Eastern Europe to trace his roots. 


Reichlin plays a variety of characters with a gentle compassion and a dry humour. His acting is very low-key which allows Aleichem’s beautiful writing to speak for itself without interference from the actor trying to physically re-enact each scene.  As Reichlin’s character reminisces on a train journey where everyone is forever dodging the ticket-master; we are drawn into an era of extreme poverty that created a desperate inventiveness in its wake.  A dirt poor beggar dressed in rags and a ‘rich’ beggar dressed in a second-hand fur coat with bald patches all over it shares a carriage.  A woman that sells green apples from a torn basket uses aggression to avoid the ticket master.  The writing is so rich that you can close your eyes and imagine sitting on this train, and feel the swaying of the carriage, and smell the unwashed clothes of the beggar.  In another sketch, Reichlin’s character arrives at his, ‘cheap, but very fine’ hotel and everyone that works at the hotel tries to sell him socks; desperate to make a living.   The stories illustrate the gaping void between the rich and the poor, and the agony and ecstasies of life.  As Aleichem liked to muse, “Life is a dream for the wise, a game for the fool, a comedy for the rich, a tragedy for the poor.”

The subject matter is heavy but it is somewhat lifted by gentle bouts of humour which leads more to a chuckle than a ‘laughing out loud’. This is something that some audiences may not appreciate as Aleichem is known as a quite a humorous writer. However, even if the humour feels a little dated and quite specific to Jews, the subject matter of the stories are not.   He may be referring to a Jewish journey but I am so reminded of the stories of my own German great-grandparents when I listen to him. The universal stories are filled with suffering, loss and fear, but also an admirable passion for living the best life you can with the cards you are dealt with.

During the second half of the evening, Reichlin plays, “‘Gimpel the Fool”, which was written up by Isaac Bashevis Singer, for which he received a Nobel Prize for Literature. Gimpel, a baker, is a very simple man who falls in love with a prostitute that derives great pleasure from deceiving him.  She has babies with everyone in the village except with poor Gimpel, who got suckered into marrying the wayward woman.  The whole village enjoys taking advantage of Gimpel’s gullibility, as Gimpel himself philosophises the meaning of love, truth and eventually death.  It is a moving sketch that is handled with so much pathos from Reichlin.  However one critic, after seeing the performance of Gimpel in Johannesburg, called it ‘dreary’.  It’s not exactly a rollercoaster of laughs, but if you have a bit of an imagination and you allow yourself to be taken in by the words, you will find great satisfaction in Reichlin’s performance and Aleichem’s words . 

* Performances run from Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm. Tickets start from R100. To book visit, or call Tracy Cahill on 021 438-3301. Or e-mail



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