KPBS AIRDATE: March 24, 1993 >
From the moment your foot crosses the threshold of the Lyceum Space, you’re entering another world. Eastern Europe, mid-19th century. Inside a small, poor synagogue, in a small, poor shtetl, the village of Brinitz.
We are steeped in the spirituality of the Hasidim, the ultra-Orthodox sect that encourages religious expression through music and dance, a studious group that believes purity of heart is more pleasing to God than even learning. And we are introduced, however obliquely, to the mysteries of Kabala, the highly mystical, ethereal, esoteric analysis of Jewish scripture, with its dangerous flights into the otherworldly.
You have to give yourself over to it to appreciate it. You have to accept the notion of matches made in heaven, of conversations with the dead, of the wandering souls of those who die prematurely. These aimless, discontented souls can inhabit the body of the living. And that’s what a dybbuk is.
The first act of “The Dybbuk” is a moody, evocative introduction into the world of these beliefs. In dark, dim light, we watch the dancing and the praying, the storytelling and the incredible tales of illustrious deeds and Rebbes. Weaving through it all is the joyful/sorrowful sound of klezmer music, composed by Yale Strom and performed brilliantly onstage by Mark Danisovszky and Myla Wingard Frysh.
Back in the synagogue, we meet Rabbis and students, beggars and scholars, 33 characters in all, played by a very competent cast of 13. And we meet Khonnon, the most intense, spiritual and ascetic young scholar of all. He is obsessed with Leah, and when he hears that she is betrothed to another, he falls down and dies. At the wedding, Leah becomes possessed by a dybbuk, by the soul of Khonnon.
In act two, we get all the fierce energy and power of the exorcism, with Khonnon refusing to leave Leah’s body, because theirs is an eternal affiliation.
We need the slow rise and fall of the first act, to prepare us for the dark, disturbing second. It’s well worth the wait — forceful, vehement and unforgettable. It’s no wonder that S. Ansky’s 1917 play, originally written in Yiddish, has survived so many years and so many translations.
Director Todd Solovey and a terrific technical team have stayed close to the spiritual core, though there’s less of the joy than the deep fervor, and the proceedings are rather dimly lit throughout. But the intensity is mesmerizing, in the whole production and in the individual characters, especially Jon Matthews’ eerily ardent Khonnon, Sean Thomas Murray’s spooky, spectral Messenger, Douglas Jacobs’ indomitable Rabbi and Ilinka Goya’s terror-stricken Leah.
If you give yourself over to the ambience, you’ll be overcome by the love story, awed by the Weltanschauung, and haunted by the production.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.