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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Review: The Dybbuk

Poster advertising a 1920 performance of The Dybbuk in Warsaw

New Twists on Old Ghost Stories
Theatregoers are getting another glimpse of a rich theatrical tradition.
by Sarah Deshaies
The dybbuk is a piece of Jewish folklore, a spirit caught between the world of the material and the ephemeral. The Dybbuk is a staging of a piece of Yiddish theatrical canon caught between being a modern undertaking and a flawed technical outing. 

No matter the tradition, humans fear the return of spirits that can return and take over innocent souls. Catholics have possession by demonic spirits, Haitians and West Africans have voodoo, Jews have dybbuks. S.An-ski wrote The Dybbuk in Yiddish after years of researching shtetls, the small, insular Jewish communities that dotted Europe. 

People usually glimpse mainstream depictions of humble shtetl life, which largely disappeared in the last century, in renderings of Fiddler on the Roof. But thanks to this staging of The Dybbuk, and the upcoming second edition of the Montreal Yiddish Theatre Festival, theatregoers are getting another glimpse of a rich theatrical tradition. (The short vignette of a dybbuk haunting preceding the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man leaps to mind.)

The ensuing drama swirls rabbinical authority and love lost...

The Dybbuk’s story is from the star-crossed lovers stock. Studious, fervent young scholar Hannan turns to Kabbalah in order to secure the predestined girl-of-his-dreams, beautiful Leah. But she’s promised to another man by her wealthy father, Sender, and upon hearing the news, Hannan collapses. He manages to a return as a dybbuk, inhabiting her body on the eve of the wedding. The ensuing drama swirls rabbinical authority and love lost, brushing up with esoteric Jewish lore and mysticism, and a smattering of Yiddish.

The play launches the life of  Uncatalogued Productions, a company devoted to staging new artists and new work. In the director’s notes, Avia Moore is quick to note the incongruousness of christening the production company with a performance of a popular, 100-year-old play. “The irony that we are starting our company life with a production of what is possibly the most produced play of of Yiddish literature is not lost on me,” she wrote. “Perhaps it is fair to say that “new work” refers more to approach and intention than to the work itself.”

While some lines were flubbed, each actress has a redeeming, gifted voice. The numerous Yiddish singing sequences are haunting.

As is, the production utilizes only female performers in a play that is populated by all men, save for a handful of female characters. This a brave move, designed to challenge traditional hierarchy. But the actresses occasionally fail to make the different roles they fill stand out. By the second performance in what is a brief run, the performances were still pockmarked by frequent halting and overlapping lines. While some lines were flubbed, each actress has a redeeming, gifted voice. The numerous Yiddish singing sequences are haunting.

Details-wise, the lighting is lacking. The design is mostly static, but the actresses fail at times to find the light to step out of the shade to brighten their performances. A few key scenes took place below the stage, hiding them from a curious audience. 

While these elements were spotty, the costume design was intricate. Director Moore and set builder Maya Jarvis created the costumes, setting a new spin on traditional clothing. The long, black coats worn by the Hasidic men are set off with tumbling, white Hebrew letters.

La Sala Rossa is a fine space, but turned out to be a noisy one for such an airy play - the bar staffer who crunched open a soft drink can midway through the show is one example among a few others. While this is not the fault of the play’s team, it disturbed the solemn atmosphere required by The Dybbuk.

The Dybbuk inspired me to pick up a copy of Judaica classics like Isaac Bashevis Singer stories and The Joys of Yiddish, and read them while drinking brandy until I saw my owns visions of dybbuks. But while the spirit is there (pardon the pun), The Dybbuk needs finetuning.

The Dybbuk runs 1 hour 15 minutes. Sala Rossa until May 25, tickets are $15, $10 in advance.  

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