There’s something about Stewart Figa–maybe it’s his deep, rich baritone voice or his robust energy–that lands him roles demanding overdrawn characterizations, wild costumes, and lots of eye rolling. One of his first roles out of school–Northwestern University’s Theater Department–was as Macbeth in Wisdom Bridge’s long-running Kabuki Macbeth: he had to move and rumble like a Japanese warlord on megadoses of steroids. When Figa relocated to New York to seek his fortune, he ended up not with Method soul mates from the Actors Studio but with the clowns and melodramatists of a local Yiddish theater troupe, cast as a clumsy dimwit in a checkered suit.

“It sounds strange, but actually there were a lot of similarities between Kabuki and Yiddish theater,” Figa says. “Both are very much larger than life, with a lot of spectacle.” He didn’t spend much time with Kabuki, but Figa found much to love in New York’s Yiddish theater. His parents are both Jewish immigrants from Poland, and growing up in Skokie he heard them speak Yiddish to each other. “My parents would speak English to the kids, but when they spoke to each other it was in Yiddish.” As a kid he had little interest in learning the language, and his parents never tried to push it on him. “My connection to it was mostly through my grandfather. He was a terrific storyteller–animated, lively, and funny. You could hear the Yiddish behind his English.”

Figa moved to New York in 1983. Combing the audition notices week after week, he noticed that the ad for Der Yiddishe Tziganiker (“Jewish Gypsy”) had appeared several times in a row. Spurred more by the lack of other opportunities than by a love for Yiddish culture, Figa went to the auditions. What he found was a troupe of veterans, many of them big stars on the old Yiddish theater circuit, which had its heyday in New York and other big cities between the world wars when Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe was at its peak. One of the people Figa encountered was Reizl Bozyk: once a leading young star, she later played Amy Irving’s grandmother in the film Crossing Delancey. Another, Leon Liebgold, worked sold-out theaters on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1920s and ’30s and starred in The Dybbuk, one of the most famous Yiddish films.

Figa had to memorize his Yiddish lines and study them for meaning afterward. He picked up the language slowly, but did well enough to land roles in several subsequent productions. “I actually tried to find a midway point between my Method training and the acting styles of the old-timers. They perform very much like silent movie actors, showing their emotions very clearly. For me to do that, I had to call up everything I knew about motivation. Thankfully, it worked.” Figa began to get larger and more demanding roles. The older actors grew thankful for his talents, and Figa quizzed them on theirs. Yiddish theater is often a catch-all for everything theatrical: a single play might dish up melodrama, comedy, music, and dancing in equal proportions, and Figa managed them all.

Yiddish theater piqued Figa’s interest in Jewish culture, and he returned to Chicago in 1990 to begin work as a cantor at a Hoffman Estates synagogue. Though Yiddish theater once thrived in Chicago, it’s virtually nonexistent today, so Figa keeps up his interest by singing with local klezmer bands and working with other performers. Last year he was invited to sing a classic Yiddish song, “Rumania, Rumania,” on the television series Brooklyn Bridge.

This Friday at 12:15, Figa will present a program of Yiddish theater and folk and art songs in the auditorium of the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State; he’ll be accompanied on piano by Arnold Miller, a veteran of Chicago’s klezmer music scene. The performance is free; call 747-4876 for information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.