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Found in Translation

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Some writers are born translators. Eric Bentley, a prime example, has spent much of his life producing graceful, faithful, well-crafted English versions of Bertolt Brecht's work. His own plays--even the powerful, moving polemic against McCarthyism, Are You Now or Have You Ever Been--pale by comparison. Other writers are much more comfortable speaking in their own voices. David Mamet and Lanford Wilson have both translated Chekhov, but as fine as their translations are, they have none of the power or range of Mamet's American Buffalo or Wilson's Balm in Gilead.

Rare are writers like Tony Kushner, who have strong individual voices but can be sensitive enough to other writers' material to be equally powerful as translators. Best known for his two-part epic masterpiece Angels in America, Kushner has translated several theater classics, among them Pierre Corneille's The Illusion. What's wonderful about these is that they incorporate all the qualities that make Kushner's own plays great: a gift for poetry, a love of lofty discussions, and a knack for finding the emotional heart in lofty discussions and making them moving and entertaining.

How does he accomplish this artistic feat? He treats each translation as if it were the product of his own fertile mind, filtering everything through his sensibility and accenting those elements that resonate with his own obsessions and talents (heightened language, the mystery of religion, the way the search for love becomes entwined with the search for personal redemption and vice versa). Elements that don't fit within his worldview are eliminated. Kushner's translations are not about word-for-word faithfulness--in fact he calls them adaptations based on translations. Instead a Kushner-ized classic feels as much a part of the politically astute, transcendent Kushner canon as Slavs! or A Bright Room Called Day.

Consider Kushner's take on The Dybbuk, S. Ansky's 1914 classic Yiddish drama set in a Polish shtetl in the late 19th century. Kushner suffuses this dark, poetic work with touches of late-20th-century anxiety and irony. One scene, for example, turns an idler's musings about a future when all Jewish people can take trains into a brief, veiled reference to the cattle cars used to transport Jewish prisoners during the Holocaust. In another sequence, Kushner gives lines to Ansky's wealth-worshiping common people that would fit right into Angels in America, which attacked the materialism of the Reagan era.

Don't get me wrong. Kushner leaves the moving story intact. An obsessed Jewish scholar, Chonen, driven mad by his studies of the cabala falls in love with a young woman, Leah. When he cannot marry her, he starves himself to death. After he dies he becomes a dybbuk, a soul described in the play as "troubled and dark, without a home or resting place" who "attempts to enter the body of another." Chonen possesses the body of the woman he adored in life just as she's about to be married to another, and only an exorcism can free her.

Others might begin this story with the woman possessed--as Jose Rivera did in The Promise, his modern-day adaptation of The Dybbuk. But Ansky and Kushner begin with the young scholar, revealing in several key scenes just how lost he is in his books and poetry. At first Leah seems almost an afterthought--for much of the play she's referred to more often than she's shown. This choice was probably motivated as much by the sexism of the early 20th century as by artistic considerations. But by focusing on this young, earnest, conflicted yeshiva student undone by his own hard work, Ansky and Kushner underscore the deep ambivalence at the story's heart about love, religious study, our spiritual guides, and even God. Becoming as obsessed with Leah as he had been with his studies, Chonen does everything a good romantic hero should do to win her: he pines away, cleanses himself, prays to God. And what does he get for his trouble? An unquiet death.

The story's conflicts make the beautiful but emotionally ambiguous deux ex machina ending all the more moving. When the dybbuk lures his love into a dark otherworld, are we supposed to be horrified, or are we to think the two lovers are finally united? We don't know. Nor does Kushner tip us off. That's to be expected from a playwright as willing as he is to stare into the abyss--think of Roy Cohn's ravings in Angels in America, or the grieving father in Kushner's translation of The Illusion. Similarly, he makes no attempt to explain the unstoppable, amoral dybbuk.

Clearly director Curt Columbus wants to reproduce this darkness in his expressionistic staging. And he does, but to the detriment of the play's emotional impact. A Dybbuk is after all a play about love. The love of God. The love of community. And erotic and romantic love. In Columbus's hands, it becomes only a play of ideas. An easy mistake to make with Kushner, since he so often uses ideas and ideologies as a way of understanding love. But Columbus focuses on the medium instead of the message.

This production is filled with concepts that should have worked, among them Elizabeth Birnkrant's expressionistic makeup and puppets (by Hystopolis Productions) playing some of the townspeople--the idlers and gossips who comment on the action. But these stylistic doodads are beside the point in a staging as cerebral and cold as this one. When the beautiful Leah is possessed, her lines should resonate with both her outrage at this psychic violation and the dybbuk's bitter rantings. We should feel her pain and his simultaneously. But Columbus employs a cheap puppeteer's trick in this scene, allowing us to understand intellectually what Leah and Chonen are going through but not to feel it. Likewise we never get inside Chonen's love for Leah or her delight at being the bright young thing at the center of everyone's thoughts.

Columbus's actors try to give their lines an emotional subtext. Chris Conry in particular strives mightily as Chonen, but every element of the show--his makeup, the stark set, the puppet townspeople--works against the effect his lines should have. That's a shame, because Kushner's adaptation has everything needed for a full, rich, emotionally satisfying theatrical experience. But the director has to be as open to Kushner's adaptation as Kushner was to Ansky's play.

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