Scheherazade fills the stage

THEATRE REVIEW: CAFÉ SCHEHERAZADE

A St Kilda cafe is portrayed in a novel, then adapted into a play. The cafe, the novel and the play, three layers of a story, like three courses, were served at the premiere of Therese Radic’s heartfelt stage production of Cafe Scheherazade at Fortyfivedownstairs in Flinders Lane, Melbourne earlier this month.

Former proprietors Masha and Avram Zeleznikow, Shoah survivors whose Middle European eatery nourished lonely souls from camps and forests, sit apprehensively in the audience.

Seeing oneself portrayed on stage is unnerving. “I just want the story to be told to a new generation,” says Masha.

A row back, writer Arnold Zable, whose 2001 novel inspired Radic’s play, watches as Radic, director Bagryana Popov and a polished cast re-interpret his words.

The main course is a combustible chaos of memories that defy retelling. They are the anecdotes of Laizer (Richard Bligh), Yossel (Bruce Kerr) and Zalman (George Werther), old men who sit around the tables at the Scheherazade in the 1990s, railing over one another, deflecting rivals’ vanities, and interrupting dark memories with others darker still.

They are no interviewer’s dream, as writer Martin (Jacob Allan), the Zable character, soon finds out. No press bites here – these alte Yidden speak in fragments, obsess over minutiae, and finish one another’s sentences.

Martin’s notebook fills with shards of stories too hard to bear. Eventually, he discards his notes and just absorbs the raw pain, served up as matter-of-factly as the rye and red cabbage.

Nightmares of delusions, betrayals, exiles, escapes, and indelible images of shots and mass graves fill the stage.

At first, Masha (Marta Kaczmarek) and Avram (Jim Daley) bustle around their Acland Street cafe, serving their arguing patrons a coffee here, a strudel there. But eventually, they let their guard down and pour out their own stories to Martin.

Masha and Avram’s narratives entwine at a rendezvous in Paris, the Scheherazade cafe of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, Arc de Triomphe. Their reunion is a victory of sorts. In faraway Melbourne, they also name their cafe after Scheherazade, the temptress who teased the Persian king with the promise of just one more tale.

Radic blends her tales and presents them in an austere space, to haunting music, punctuated by joyous bursts of klezmer from Ernie Gruner’s violin.

In doing so, she contends with almost more than can be told on a stage, but manages to distil Zable’s book and the survivors’ legacy.

Café Scheherazade is at Fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne until April 3. Bookings: (03) 9662 9966.

REVIEWED BY PETER KOHN
Rating: ****

PHOTO: Arguing at the table are (from left) George Werther, Richard Bligh and Bruce Kerr in Cafe Scheherazade. Photo by Jeff Busby