Writer: S. Ansky
Adaptor: David Mandelbaum
Director: Jesse Freedman
Reviewer: Carrie Lee O’Dell
On December 9, 1920, the Vilna Troupe premiered a new play by activist and ethnographer S. Ansky, who had died only a month prior. That play, The Dybbuk or Between Two Worlds, became one of the best-known works of the Yiddish theatre. In the century since its inaugural production, The Dybbuk has been performed around the world in multiple languages. In the United States, theatrical greats such as Joseph Chaikin, Tony Kushner, Jerome Robbins, and Elizabeth Swados have tackled it. In honor of the play’s centenary, Theatre for the New City and New Yiddish Rep are presenting a new adaption by David Mandelbaum, directed by Jesse Freedman. This hybrid production is streamed to audiences at home and performed in real time by the ensemble cast of Darrel Blackburn, Amy Coleman, Hannah Gee, Lev Harvey, Lucie Allouche, David Mandelbaum, and Thomas Morris.
The Dybbuk is often compared to Romeo and Juliet; like Shakespeare’s play, it features a pair of star-crossed young lovers. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, in features a dybbuk, a malevolent spirit that possesses a human body until it is exorcised. The action of the play takes place in a shtetl in Russia’s Pale of Settlement, where a gifted scholar named Chanon immerses himself in the study of the Kabbalah and pines over Leah, the daughter of his benefactor Sender. When Sender arranges for Leah to marry a wealthy man from a neighboring village, Chanon dies. Leah is heartbroken. During a trip to her mother’s grave, she stops at Chanon’s grave and invites him to the wedding. Chanon then takes the form of a dybbuk and possesses Leah’s body. Sender brings a powerful rabbi in to exorcise the spirit; during the course of the exorcism, we learn that Leah was Chanon’s bashert, or divinely foreordained soulmate, because of a promise that Sender made to Chanon’s father Nissen. Sender’s failure to honor the promise to his dead friend and now both of their children will suffer.
David Mandelbaum’s adaptation of Ansky’s play trims down a lot of the original’s world building without sacrificing vital plot points. The show’s ninety minute running time is the perfect length for an online production. The ensemble cast does fine work, in particular the actors playing Chanon and Leah—their chemistry is palpable even through a browser screen.
Tatiana Stolpovskaya’s excellent video design takes advantage of the virtual format; video of faces layered upon one another and actors imposed on mystic backgrounds clearly convey possession and exorcism, as does sound designer in Eamon Goodman’s manipulation of Leah’s voice. Some portions of the play are in Yiddish with English subtitles. The subtitles occasionally move a little fast and might be hard for folks unfamiliar with the material to follow. Thankfully, sections in English generally do a fine job of letting the audience know what is happening.
There is much about this production that makes it feel particularly timely right now. We are in the midst of a global pandemic; when The Dybbuk was first produced, the world was still reeling from the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and what is illness if not a form of possession? Ansky based his play on ethnographic research he conducted in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, recording his subjects on the new technology of wax cylinders, so it seems fitting that a century later, theatres are using new ways of staging work using technology. All in all, this is a stellar production of Ansky’s classic; hopefully there will be opportunities for the creative team to reimagine it for in-person audiences when we are allowed to gather in theatres again.
Runs until 13 December 2020 | Photo Credit: Jonathan Slaff