It's easy to see why Dybbuk was chosen to close out Traveling Jewish Theatre's 25th anniversary season. S. Ansky's play has been a Yiddish theater standard since its 1920 Lithuanian debut, and its recent history is deeply intertwined with that of the company. Bruce Myers' Obie award-winning adaptation was written in 1977, and TJT cofounder Corey Fischer performed in a 1977 production alongside Myers and Mark Samuels, the latter of whom would go on to direct Fischer in the Myers version in 1989 and 1997.
Dybbuk is a hair-raising ghost story, a love story, and a religious parable all in one, brilliantly embodied by two actors in multiple roles. Framed as a story told by a loving and frisky couple over a Sabbath dinner, the whole production has a sense of ritual about it, from the reverently rendered songs to the candles that remain lit throughout the play. Director Fischer's simple staging brings out the play's nature as a much-loved tale that retains its freshness no matter how many times it is told -- or how many times it is seen, for that matter.
The tale in question is of the grim fate of Chanon, a student of the Kabbalah who is a few candles short of a menorah to begin with, obsessing over numerological signs and portents and writhing feverishly with love for his young neighbor Leah. When he learns that her father has engaged her to a much richer boy, Chanon drops dead on the spot to become a dybbuk, a restless spirit that possesses the living, and becomes united with his love in a much more literal sense.
Though Annie Kunjappy's elegantly understated costumes aid the transformations, a great deal is demanded of the performers in this piece, and the two guest artists in this production rise to the challenge beautifully. Keith C. Davis is haunting as Chanon and the hooded exorcist enlisted to cast him out, and provides some mild and much-needed comic relief as Leah's nattering bubbe (grandmother) and smarmy father. Karine Koret so completely transforms herself from the deep spirituality and playful sensuality of the storytelling wife, to the girlish innocence of Leah, to the bookish agitation of a fellow Kabbalah student aghast at Chanon's heretical views, to the bestial moans of the dybbuk in Leah's body, that often she doesn't even resemble herself. As the dybbuk resists expulsion, it looks as if Koret is hanging on to chairs and tables for dear life lest she be blown away by a hurricane.
The exorcism scene is chilling, and not simply because Koret's dybbuk is so monstrous in its rage and its host so palpably terrified, nor because Davis' old rabbi could put the fear of God even into souls that are exactly where they're supposed to be. You're not just scared for the innocent girl who has been so fearsomely possessed nor for the impossibly frail old rabbi performing the rite, but for the tortured spirit who has nowhere to go if he is driven from this unholy union with his true love. It's that very complexity that makes this Dybbuk so superbly effective as a teaching story, because the lessons you learn are not at all what you might expect them to be.
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