It sounds like the beginning of one of those "a guy walks into a bar" jokes. What happens when a Jewish court jester and an anti-Semitic king are thrown into a medieval dungeon together? Well, if New York Times best-selling author Daniel Klein's new play, "The Jewish Jester: A Fable With Music," is anything to go by, the answer is simple -- they make the audience laugh.
While Klein is a prolific and accomplished writer, "The Jewish Jester" is only his second play. His first, "Mengelberg and Mahler," made its world premiere during Shakespeare & Company's 2010 season.
"The Jewish Jester" is getting the world premiere treatment, too, at the Unicorn Theatre, where it opened Thursday. night. Produced by New Stage Performing Arts and directed by Bruce T. MacDonald, the play runs through May 26.
For a comic writer who hasn't met a pun he didn't like, Klein said it was liberating to work on a play that did not deal with the same kinds of weighty issues explored in "Mengelberg and Mahler," which centers on the ramifications faced by Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg as a result of some morally ambiguous compromises made during the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands.
"The other play was so serious," Klein said in an interview. "It dealt with material that meant a lot to me, but I didn't get those laughs. I don't care how many tears I got or how many wrenching discussions were inspired (by the play), I kept asking, ‘where's my laugh?' "
This time, Klein has gone all out to get those laughs.
"I had this line that just came out of my head -- ‘thou schnorrer!,' " Klein said. "It's such a funny-sounding expression, with ‘schnorrer' meaning ‘beggar' in Yiddish, somebody you want to get rid of."
"Danny claims the play doesn't have a deeper message, but it's all there," said New Stage Performing Arts artistic director Nicki Wilson. "It looks at prejudice, at the fact that people shouldn't look at labels, and what you end up learning when you do look past those labels."
Wilson first came across "The Jewish Jester" through a reading at Shakespeare & Company.
Not long after that reading, Klein approached Wilson about staging his work. She initially said no, but then gave in.
She hired MacDonald after seeing a comedy he worked on at Mixed Company in Great Barrington. Shakespeare & Company favorites Jonathan Epstein and Robert Lohbauer were cast to play the Jester and the King, respectively. Jesse Putnam, of the eclectic Klezmer-pop-folk hybrid band Bella's Bartok, was brought on board to write music.
MacDonald said that the plot of two characters from disparate backgrounds coming to understand one another is what gives the light comedy its power.
Taking off masks
"This play is about taking off masks, putting masks on," MacDonald said. "The wonderful thing about this story is the joy and embrace of just being a human being. It does all of that without hitting you over the head with the author's message."
Lohbauer, who played Mengelberg in "Mengelberg and Mahler," said he was immediately struck by this play's humor.
"It's very Danny with all of the puns," Lohbauer said in a phone interview. "It just hit me between the eyes when I read it. Then I saw the way it addressed anti-Semitism -- it's hilarious, but also has an existential lesson."
Lohbauer, for whom the role of the King was written, said he also was drawn to his character's transformation.
"He does a complete 180 degrees from this self-involved autocrat and becomes a humanist," Lohbauer said.
"The fool and the king are both very important archetypes," Epstein said by phone. "Every culture has a jackal or a crow or sometimes a snake -- that person who sneaks through corners of life by being a trickster or a jester or a fool."
For Epstein, part of the fun is working with Klein's language.
"In a role like this, you have to find what makes a guy talk in this stylized manner. If you go too far, you have these weird psychological profiles," Epstein said. "Danny has been working on it to suit the way Bob and I speak, and we've been adapting ourselves to come into alignment with the style and the message and so on -- it's been very collaborative which isn't always the case with a new play."
Klein says it is important to remember one thing about "The Jewish Jester" -- it's entertainment.
"If I have anything to say in this that is meaningful, it's that this play offers a new take on how you can rid yourself of cultural definitions and achieve some sort of existential meaning for yourself.
"But," he said after a welltimed beat, "forget about that. I just want you to laugh."