Below are pages from Isaak Babel’s Odessa Stories and the notes that eventually became Socalled’s idea factory for The Segal Centre’s upcoming production of the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre’s Tales From Odessa. You can see, through Socalled’s notes on each page, how the play begins to take shape in his mind.
Here, for example, from the first chapter, is the story of how Benya Krik, the notorious gangster of the Stories, meets the woman who would become his wife. It started out as extortion, a campaign to terrorize a man named Eykhenbaum who refused to pay what today might be called protection money. As Benya and his gang are busy slaughtering Eykhenbaum’s cattle, and as Eykhenbaum pleads with Benya to accept a deal, “out into the yard, in a low-cut chemise, ran old man Eykhenbaum’s daughter, Tsilya. And the King’s triumph became his defeat.” Next to this paragraph Socalled scribbled a casting note: “Gotta be a babe and a half.”
Further down, note how impressed Socalled is with the line “And he got his way, Benya Krik, because he was passionate, and passion holds sway over the world.” Passion, and its sway over the world, is certainly something that Babel would have understood, as would any artist.
Make no mistake, Benya Krik is indeed a gangster. But Tales From Odessa is far from your typical gangster story. Still, the genre plays on Socalled’s imagination and informs his thinking. On this page Socalled scribbled “Fredo!” This is in reference to The Godfather II, where Michael Corleone realizes that it was his own brother Fredo that sold him out. “I know it was you, Fredo,” he says, giving his brother the kiss of death. “You broke my heart.” Likewise, in this scene Benya is angered and saddened that one of his own, Savka Butsis, either accidentally or cavalierly shoots an innocent man. For both Michael Corleone and Benya Krik reputation is everything. Fredo is as much an embarrassment to Michael as Savka is to Benya. “I swear by my mother’s coffin, Savka,” Benya says, “you will lie beside him.”
As Ruthless as Benya can be, we are made to believe that there is a moral side to him that informs his every move. As Socalled wrote in the margin of the page below, “deadly violence is last option.”
On the following page, grappling with the character of Benya Krik and who he is, Socalled notes Benya’s “sense of sportsmanship.” On the other side of the page he notes that the walk from Benya’s courtyard to the burning police station offers a “chance to see Odessa – montage of walking through the streets.” Socalled originally conceived of Tales From Odessa as a film. He may have wanted the viewer to experience Odessa the way he did. And indeed the Tales From Odessa production team, through the vision of director Audrey Finkelstein, has worked hard to bring the audience into the Odessa of the Stories, into Benya Krik’s Odessa, into Babel’s Odessa, and ultimately into Socalled’s Odessa
Here, Benya attends the funeral of the innocent man killed by his henchman in the scene above. He takes it upon himself to eulogize the dead man. “This speech,” notes Socalled, “is what makes him king – words, speaking, writing, charisma”