Rachel Calof Review

Julie Congress, August 15, 2011

“So many tears make up a life.” This is particularly true for Rachel Calof, a Jewish mail-order bride who leaves a difficult life in Russia for an even more difficult life in Devils Lake, North Dakota in 1894. Actress Kate Fuglei gives a tour-de-force performance in Rachel Calof, a one-woman show (with music) adapted from Calof’s memoirs.

As the show begins, Rachel, now 55, is waiting for her husband Abraham to return home from a political meeting for the Shabbes. She lights an imaginary match to light the Sabbath candles, blows it out, and begins to tell us her story—starting with her childhood in Russia, her mother’s death and how she was forbidden to marry her first love. She tells us of her journey to America to marry Abraham, sight unseen. He and his family are homesteaders—if they inhabit the prairie land for five years and improve it, they will achieve their dream when the government gives them 160 acres for free. So Rachel, Abraham, Abraham's parents and their son, little Moses (with a perpetually runny nose), dozens of chickens and a calf live together in a 12-foot by 14-foot shack—facing brutal weather, poverty and isolation.

Fuglei’s portrayal of Calof is completely believable, from her Yiddish accent to her stoic physicality. Her movements are spare but incredibly specific. It is clear that director Ellen S. Pressman has a keen eye for detail and it is remarkable how clearly, yet simply, we see the moments from Rachel’s life. The births of her children seem painfully graphic—yet all Fuglei does is sit on the table that, with two chairs, makes up the entire set. Moments of more obvious miming are less clear (particularly the details of lighting the Shabbes candles). A 12 x 14 rectangle of masking tape on the floor serves as a constant reminder of the close quarters Rachel shared for so long. The rules for when Fuglei is within the rectangle and when she can leave it were ambiguous to me, but it was clearly very important, and felt almost rebellious, every time she crossed over the line.

Ken LaZebnik’s adaptation is filled with strong images and keen details. While not a musical per se, Rachel Calof features seven original songs with music and lyrics by Leslie Steinweiss. A lullaby in Yiddish creates the feel of the world that Rachel leaves behind (but is forever rooted in) and shows us early on the continual importance of Rachel’s mother (who died when Rachel was just four). The song “My Life is Mud,” executed by Fuglei with an almost scary intensity, shows a desperate perseverance and a new dimension to our heroine and is the highlight of the show. The other songs, however, felt as though they did not belong. There is a disparity between Rachel’s language and voice in the lyrics and monologue that make the former seem incongruous, and it was unclear as to why certain things were spoken and others sung.

Seeing the simplicity and hardships of frontier life makes the modern American lifestyle seem so staggeringly easy, and so full of opportunities. Rachel Calof is, in every respect, deliberately stark, mirroring the barren frontier. It is a show of struggle, after struggle, after struggle. Not only is it excellently realized and a testament to minimalist theatre, but it does put our own lives very much into perspective.