Leela Corman

Belly dancer and illustrator Leela Corman has created a cinematic story with her graphic novel Unterzakhn (Schocken, $24.95), Yiddish for "underthings"—which foreshadows the stark unveiling the book contains. Twin sisters Esther and Fanya grow up in New York's Lower East Side during the early 1900s; the tragic cobblestone milieu suggests a Jewish immigrant La Vie en Rose. There's also a big, colorful cast of characters—Minna, the girls' brutal and adulterous mother (memorably described as "loose like a farmhouse goose" by a pair of street urchins); Isaac, their long-suffering father; Sal, Fanya's one-legged lover; Bronia, the lady-doctor who performs abortions and preaches celibacy and takes Fanya under her wing; and Miss Lucille, the vulgar brothel owner who takes Esther under hers. The story's also infused with dancing, since Esther has showbiz dreams. ("I like the fat one," a visitor to Miss Lucille's burlesque theater says. "They charge extra for that?" his companion asks.) Corman also casts her tale back to Eastern Europe, where Isaac's family is murdered by Cossacks. Poverty and anti-Semitism are a constant: One of Esther's stage rivals hisses at her, "You're a tricky little kike." Despite Corman's vivid drawings of rowdy dancing, frilly costumes, romping lovers, and sisterly bonds, Unterzakhn's story is anything but comic. ERIN K. THOMPSON

Tue., April 10, 7 p.m., 2012

 
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