Cross-dressing in theater is an old convention, from the Greeks through Shakespeare to "M. Butterfly," all to the purpose of setting up romantic situations that are unlikely yet make a point.
Most of the time the gimmick is used to illustrate how women are, in the final analysis, the equal of their male counterparts. Isaac Bashevis Singer's "Yentl" is an interesting example of the genre.
The production of the piece at the Ensemble Theatre--this stage version is credited to Leah Napolin and Singer--makes it apparent that it is not really a play but more a cinematic script, with short scenes in many locales.
The biggest problem with this type of script is apparent under Victor F. Mena II's direction, with its interminable blackouts between scenes for set changes. Even the simplest change seems to take forever.
The second problem is that the style never allows a scene to develop fully. To the production's advantage, Mena keeps the interior action of the brief scenes lively and rhythmically interesting.
Mena also has been fortunate in his casting of the three central figures. Yentl, the Jewish girl whose intelligence and will lead her to live as a man in order to further her education, against all Orthodox Jewish tradition, is played by Darlena Roberts, whose simplicity and honesty in the role make her very believable and sympathetic. Roberts has a forthright but subtle strength that makes the role work no matter how she's dressed.
Hilary Hesse, as Hadass, the pretty young woman who falls in love with the eager scholar Yentl and finally becomes his bride, is attractive and warm, with a delicious sense of giddiness that helps excuse her acceptance of Yentl's marriage-bed ruse.
As Avigdor, Yentl's best friend who really loves Hadass, finally helps Yentl to escape the trap she's made for herself and eventually wins Hadass, Christopher Wright has the perfect youthful elan and a sense of slowly growing wisdom that fits perfectly.
Members of the supporting cast are very uneven in their ability to help keep it all together. The most obvious example is Holly Jeanne's wild overacting--first as a marriage broker and later as Avigdor's shrewish first wife--particularly the way she twists her mouth into various emotional caricatures, and her screeching at dramatic moments. That and other excesses in some of the supporting company should have been discouraged by the director.
* "Yentl," Ensemble Theatre, 844 E. Lincoln Blvd., Suite E, Orange. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Ends June 24. $12-$15. (714) 998-2670. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
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Darlena Roberts: Yentl
Christopher Wright: Avigdor
Hilary Hesse: Hadass
Holly Jeanne: Rivka/Pesha
An Eastern Boys Company production of the Leah Napolin-Isaac Bashevis Singer dramatic comedy, produced by R.A. Blankenship Jr. Direction and sound design: Victor F. Mena II. Scenic/lighting design: Mena, Blankenship. Costume design: Larry Watts, Tom Phillips. Stage manager: Jim Mongell.