Other elements more than carry the evening, however. The Klezmer Conservatory Band provides live music, under the expert direction of Zalmen Mlotek. (An authority on Yiddish music, Mlotek has kept busy this winter in South Florida, also serving as musical director for Bagels & Yox.) In the orchestra pit and as itinerant players roaming the stage with clarinet, trombone, mandolin, and pennywhistle, the klezmer musicians express that blend of the mournful and the satiric that signifies the Yiddish sensibility. Robert Israel's magical realist set -- complete with a sloping floor, trees, and boulders that parade around the stage, plus a monochromatic backdrop meant as a homage to Chagall -- enhances the music. Meanwhile, Catherine Zuber's extraordinary, puppetlike costumes slyly transform one character into another, as cast members take on different roles.
David Gordon's impeccable direction and choreography whip all this into shape, leaving after-images on the brain A visual imprints of the women of Chelm in their babushkas and dresses sweeping the floor in unison in one scene, the sages drumming the backs of chairs while singing and dancing in another. Finally, the talented cast, all of whom sing, dance, and act with aplomb, delivers exuberant performances. In particular Paul Sand's unassuming Shlemiel looks and acts like Gene Wilder gone to the shtetl, and Charles Levin (Gronam Ox) gives a juicy rendition of a bombastic husband and chief wise man. But the fabulous Marilyn Sokol outdoes them all in a trio of roles, appearing as Shlemiel's daughter, Gittel, the sage known as Sender Shlamazel, and the real brains behind Chelm, Gronam Ox's wife, Yenta Pesha.
Brustein and gang make a lot out of a little story, resulting in an evening of theater as lip-smacking good as one of Yenta's blintzes.
Sometimes the best way to enjoy a short story is to hear it read out loud. New York City's Symphony Space understands how pleasurable that can be and has garnered a reputation for producing staged readings by seasoned actors of some of the best stories ever written. Under the title Selected Shorts, a varied program of stories is performed at Symphony Space and elsewhere around the country. Miami Book Fair International has hosted Selected Shorts numerous times in the past, and this year brings its "Comedy Classics" to Miami Beach Monday, March 13, at 8:00. Isaiah Sheffer reads "Heart of a Champion," by T. Coraghessan Boyle; Joe Grifasi reads "The Kugelmass Episode," by Woody Allen; and Laura Esterman reads "The Loudest Voice," by Grace Paley. The free event takes place at the Colony Theater, 1040 Lincoln Rd. Call 237-3258 for information.