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A CurtainUp Review
The Dybukk Or, Between Two Worlds
By Elyse Sommer
S. Ansky's 1914 classic drama centers on a rabbinical student who dies of grief over his unfulfilled love for a young girl in his Polish shtetl and enters her body as a dybbuk in order to stop her wedding. First entitled Between Two Worlds and later as The Dybbuk, it has had a long and varied life -- as a banned play in both Russian and Yiddish, as a hit English translation Off and On Broadway, as a marionette production, a ballet and twice, as an opera.
As I headed for the last preview performance of this mystical Romeo and Juliet fable as adapted by Tony Kushner, I was reminded of a comment by James Magruder. According to the translator of Marivaux's Triumph of Love "a truly stageworthy translation should only last twenty years, and if Brian Friel wants to tackle Chekhov, it's good for the Cherry Orchard, it's good for the audience, and it keeps Friel writing if he's taking time off between original works." ( See Our Interview with Magruder)
It's been exactly twenty years since I saw another "new" version of the play, (by Mira Rafalowicz and directed by Joseph Chaikin), which left a deep impression on me. So the time does indeed seem ripe for Joachim Negroschel's updated translation adapted by one of the contemporary theater's most vital playwrights. Having seen one of Kushner's other "between original works" an awe-inspiringly fresh take on Pierre Corneille's The Illusion I knew that his adaptation was likely to take this arcane folktale to a new level of relevance and accessibility.
And so it does.
The play deconstructs the legend of the dybbuk as a restless spirit, usually malevolent, entering a randomly chosen innocent victim's body when its work is incomplete. However, the deconstruction is Ansky's, not Kushner's. According to a fascinating essay in the program notes by David G. Roskies, Ansky was inspired by an eyewitness account of a 1755 exorcism in the Ukraine. As an ethnographer he wanted to capture the Eastern European Jewish legends and life styles already imperiled in his day. As a writer he wanted to reinvent this chronicle in a more emotionally uplifting and dramatic way without sacrificing the details of the culture. Consequently, his dybbuk was an impoverished yeshiva bokher, Khonen, whose passion for a rich merchant's daughter pitted against rabbinical authority and worldly greed (the girl's father conveniently forgot that his long ago commitment to make her Khonen's bride) .
The current adaptation remains true to Ansky's play but it emphasizes the fact that the peril facing this world of ancient legends and traditions have come true in ways far beyond anything Ansky envisioned. It succeeds in painting a vivid picture of the world the playwright sought to preserve for future generations and in connectiong the eternal struggle between the old world and the new, he mystical and the material.
This blending of Ansky's play with Kushner's vision of its relevance for modern theater goers begins with the title which combines the original and the later title. It also changes The Dybbuk to A Dybbuk, thus underscoring the more unique and benign nature of our fictional, love-possessed dybbuk as opposed to the more invidious, sinful dybbuk of Hasidic legend. It also has a new scene knit into the start of the second act to support the movement of the exorcism from the small shtetl to the city and the striking visual metaphor of the train as a double symbol of peril -- the sweeping away of the old by modernity and the more ominous uprooting of the old implied by the box car with the synagogue turned upside down.
Mrk Wendland's striking set lends such strong support, especially the synagogue which not only turns upside down, but comes apart in the middle; so much so, that it is almost a character in its own right. The same is true of the original music and performance by The Klezmatics. These talented musicians have won world renown for their moving and thoroughly modern interpretation of Klezmer music. The music they have created here perfectly expresses the "between two worlds" subtitle. (The group is widely recorded and has recorded the music created for the play). The Klezmatics' coming on stage and turning one of the tables at which the students studied in the first act into a bandstand represent one of Brian Kulick's many fine directorial touches.
Naturally, a play is only as good as its players, and for the most part the large cast rates high marks. Ron Leibman featured as the star in most of the promotional literature, is in fact more appropriately listed in alphabetical order in the program since his Rabbi Azriel does not come on stage until the second act. Mr. Leibman as the mystical Tzaddik -- (a leader in Hasidim, addressed as "Rebbe" to distinguish him from the more conventional or ordinary rabbi) -- delivers his at times overwhelmingly long speeches with clarity and fire. However, the evening's most emotionally potent performance is by Marin Hinkle as Leah. The knock-down-drag-out struggle of the Khonen-possessed bride is theater at its most mesmerizing. Michael Stuhlbarg, as Khonen almost matches her passion in the beautiful scene where the prayer shawl becomes a bridal huppe.
While this superstition-filled folk tale with it's rather slow-moving first act may not hit the mark for all theater goers, the production is not one anyone is likely to forget. It's interesting to note that according to one of my theater history books, the 1926 Dybbuk was praised mostly in terms of its production by such leading New York critics of the day as Richard Watts, Alexander Woolcott and Brooks Atkinson.
Besides the already mentioned staging talents contributing to the play, credit is due to Tom Morse for sound, Beth Clancy for costumes and Mimi Jordan-Sherin for lighting.