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August 28, 1992 - Image 69

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1992-08-28

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Chelsea on the Edge

hen the Chelsea Theater
in Brooklyn, N.Y., folded
in 1987, Davi Napoleon
was in the midst of writing a
book about it. She had spent
endless hours interviewing
some 200 people, observing
behind the scenes and sitting
in on rehearsals.
The closing did not prevent
her from going forward with
the book. She merely shifted
her focus from Chelsea's pro-
duction history to the rise and
fall of an innovative Ameri-
can theater. This year she
completed her non-fiction
book and titled it Chelsea on
the Edge. .
"I wanted to write about a
theater that took chances and
was on the cutting edge," ex-
plains Ms. Napoleon, a
freelance writer in Ann Ar-
bor. "Instead, I wound up
writing about a - remarkable
theater and why it didn't sur-
vive. When I started the book,
Chelsea was thriving; and
when I finished the theater
was history."
Special to The Jewish News
Ms. Napoleon became in-
terested in the Chelsea
Theater more than 15 years
ago, while living in Brooklyn
and working as a theater
critic for local newspapers.
Chelsea was founded by Bob
Kalfin, who is Jewish but
could only find theater space
in a church. Members of the
congregation were disturbed
by some of the work Mr.
Kalfin did, and he was asked
to leave the church. He then
moved to the Brooklyn
Academy of Music.
Chelsea was a small theater
with a restricted budget that
did large, unusual produc-
tions, and Ms. Napoleon was
struck by the chances Mr.
Kalfin took, since most of the
plays had limited audience
"Most of their plays were
either technically complex or
never done before," says Ms.
Napoleon, who earned a
master's degree from the
University of Michigan and a
doctorate in performance
studies at New York Univer-
sity. "They were not commer-
cial, but Chelsea did them

An Ann Arbor
author charts
the rise and
fall of
New York's
famous theater.

Davi Napoleon

A scene from Sunset, the story of a Jewish family and its troubles, at the

anyway • and did them
According to Ms. Napoleon,
critically acclaimed plays
were performed at Chelsea,
sometimes starring big-name
actors and actresses.
"People like Meryl Streep,
Glenn Close and Frank
Langella were willing to come
to Brooklyn and perform for
minimum salaries when they
could have been doing movies
and making a fortune," she
reports. "They came to
Chelsea because the work
was so exciting?'
Some of those whom Mr.
Kalfin cast had never before
performed in English, only in
Yiddish theaters.
"Sonia Zomina, who was

important in the Jewish
theater and played a lead in
Sunset, was particularly
grateful to Mr. Kalfin for giv-
ing her a break, and she
donated much of her war-
drobe to Chelsea to use as
costumes," Ms. Napoleon
Chelsea became known for
risk-taking, and one of those
risks included reviving a flop.
Candide was an unsuc-
cessful Broadway show in the
1950s. Hal Prince came to
Chelsea to direct its revival.
"They turned it into a total-
ly different kind of production
where the audience sat under,
inside and around the Can-
dide set," Ms. Napoleon
recalls. "It was called an en-

vironmental staging concept
and the action happened all
Indeed, not all of their pro-
ductions ran smoothly, and
some were surrounded by con-
troversy. They began rehear-
sing a play about Native
American Indians called
Dawn Song but did not cast
the Native Americans who
auditioned. Mr. Kalfin and
others felt they weren't as ex-
perienced as the other actors,
but the Native Americans
said if they were not cast they
would close the show. The
play never opened.
In another controversial in-
cident, Jewish audiences
were asked to appreciate a
play depicting the humanity
of a Nazi sympathizer. Ice Age
told the story of Knut Ham-
sun, a Nobel Prize-winning
novelist who found Nazi
ideology attractive. The play
didn't ask spectators to agree
with Mr. Hamsun, but to
respect an individual's right
to hold an opinion.
Many of Chelsea's most suc-
cessful productions were
about or written by Jews.
"Audiences loved Yentle The
Yeshiva Boy and it was more
successful on the stage when
Mr. Kalfin directed it than it
was when Barbra Streisand
made a movie based on the
same story," Ms. Napoleon


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