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The Dybbuk


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National Jewish Theater

The Dybbuk is certainly the most celebrated classic of the Yiddish theater. Now, if you were producing The Dybbuk, there would be three ways to look at it: you could revere it as a classic and give it the museum treatment, you could make it a showcase for Jewish culture, or you could put these considerations aside and deal with it as a play. The National Jewish Theater seems to have chosen the second alternative.

The raw material in all three cases is basically the same. S. Anski's play is the story of a yeshiva scholar, Channon, and his love for a rich man's daughter named Leah. Channon is also very heavily into the cabala. He's a mystic. You could say he's orthodox or unorthodox, depending on your viewpoint, but you couldn't accuse him of being a dilettante in the same sense that, say, Allen Ginsberg is. Channon is serious to a fault; when Leah is engaged to another man, Channon takes the ultimate step into the mystic and discovers the true name of God, which kills him. He then moves into Leah's soul as a dybbuk, or a spirit. So what we have here is a case of demonic possession, which screws up Leah's plans for marriage.

The rest of the play is concerned with trying to get Channon out of Leah's soul. The exorcism is complicated by the revelation that Channon and Leah were betrothed before their births by their fathers. They were meant to be together, in spite of Leah's father's wishes, and in spite of the fact that Channon is now dead. What this all boils down to is one huge dilemma with moral, religious, emotional, and mystical facets. There are no easy solutions to the problem, and the solution that is provided proves disastrous. Compared with these characters, Romeo and Juliet simply ran into existential flak.

Sheldon Patinkin, who both adapted and directed the play, has taken a few liberties with the script and has even included some material from a 1937 film version. The overall feel of the production is melodramatic: there's some spooky mood music and the impending but unfulfilled promise that Leah is eventually going to turn her head around 360 degrees and vomit pea soup. She doesn't puke, thank God, but she does inhale like an asthmatic and does perch like a spider on any available furniture. Interesting perhaps, and tastefully restrained, but this doesn't quite amount to what I would call a significant interpretation of The Dybbuk.

Far more overwhelming is the impression that this play is moonlighting as a showcase for Hasidic culture circa 1880. The accents are excellent. There are chants that, to the goyish ear, sound like Gregorian rap songs. There's even a little folk dancing, and a good deal of emphasis on rabbis and scholars holding forth on various aspects of Hasidic culture.

This is all very nice, informative, and even entertaining in its own right. But this is where the production breaks down as a piece of theater, where the plot ceases to have impact, and where the theme goes up for grabs. The first thing to disappear is the conflict. Leah's rich father is held only partially to blame for the tragedy, and his culpability isn't dramatically held in relief. Nor are the more oppressive restrictions of Hasidic orthodoxy in any way held liable. When the exorcism culminates in Leah's death, this production implies that the wise Rabbi Azrael, the exorcist, is exonerated. In the end, after three hours in the Hasidic museum, I felt as if I'd seen, I don't know, a Puritan production of The Crucible in which there was a witchcraft problem that resulted in an unfortunate but necessary necktie party.

What I missed, and what Anski's script seems to beg for, is a deeper analysis of the play. After all, the play is based on folktales that Anski gathered while wandering around eastern Europe; yet the symbolism here is virtually unexplored. Director Patinkin's best shot is his handling of Leah's prenuptial dance: a sensual, erotic dance with the ghost of her dead mother, who is played by Channon in a death mask. Less adept is Patinkin's depiction of Channon's mysticism (a good boy who fasted too much) and Leah's possession (low-budget Linda Blair). Somewhere along the line, the themes of good versus evil, the triumph of love over death, and the uncertain distinctions between superstition and reality are passed over.

The acting in the major roles is generally OK, but it's only professional in the sense that the actors are members of Equity. Lisa Dodson as Leah gives the best performance, although she doesn't consistently create the impression that she's in a crisis beyond her control. Her transitions--when Channon seizes and releases control of her body--have the credibility of a five-dollar-an-hour spiritual medium. Jerry Jarrett, as Azrael the exorcist, alternates between the roles of a 19th-century Hasidic rabbi and a 20th-century detective, with little concern for the inherent irony of this paradox. But the most inexplicable performance is Si Osborne's; as the Messenger, he skulks around ominously in the background when something metaphysical is in the offing. I gather the Messenger is supposed to deliver some message, however cryptic, but I don't think Osborne and director Patinkin got together on what that message is.

Nevertheless, I wasn't bored. The Dybbuk isn't boring, whether you read it or watch it even in its most minimal production. But I'm not interested in it as a museum piece, no matter how exalted its place in theater history and Yiddish art. Nor, apparently, do I care to see The Dybbuk serve as a PR job on Hasidic beliefs. I like it as a play, and I think it is relevant, in spite of the current production's inability to establish that relevance. Possession (metaphoric or psychological), superstition, the search for good amid overpowering evil, and the insensitivity of the true believer are all issues that would seem to deeply affect our lives today. But getting at these issues requires more than historically accurate costumes and mild melodrama. Because this is a play, it requires an interpretation.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.

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