New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

"The Dybbuk"
Theater for the New City

Julia Pascal brings her own piercing, powerful interpretation of “The Dybbuk” to the stage. The British playwright/director takes this timeless Yiddish classic into the 20th century, as she interweaves past and present.

Pascal’s “Dybbuk,” which originated in England in 1992 and toured the United Kingdom and Europe, is now enjoying its American premiere off Broadway this month. The piece makes its impact as part of the Theater for the New City’s Dream Up Festival.

Pascal’s take on “The Dybbuk” is expressionistic in form and substance—and yet intensely realistic. With the work of her colleague Thomas Kampe, the stage set portrays a bleak, seedy Ghetto room. Buckets, blankets, ladders, palettes, and old clothes (used in numerous ways) provide the only décor.

The playwright has skillfully created a play within a play within a play, rather like a nest of Russian dolls, taking the viewer from a shaky hold on the present back to a legendary past. The tale begins in the present. A British woman goes to Germany, where she senses the country is full of wandering dybbuks (or lost souls). As the Old Testament has it, any one who does not live out his appointed years (three score and ten) is destined for that role. And indeed the millions of Jews who were exterminated in the Holocaust fitted that profile.

The woman imagines a 1942 ghetto scene, where five Jews (two men and three women) await deportation. “This is a mistake,” one woman cries (or words to that effect). “I’m not Jewish. Only my father. My mother is Christian.” But the others laugh at her protestations. Though hungry, cold, and terrified, they manage to turn their minds back to medieval times, as one of the five gets the idea that they act out “The Dybbuk.” But again and again they are reminded of the present, as deportation trains roar in the background.

The British/European cast (Juliet Dante, Stefan Karsberg, Adi Lerer, Simeon Perlin, Anna Savva) show strength and versatility, as their words, gestures, movement, and ensemble work play out the story.

This “Dybbuk” reminds one once again of the power of theater—of the value of story-telling and story-performance—even (and perhaps especially) in the direst of circumstances. Think Terezin, where the doomed Jews created music, art, drama—and especially drama. Think of“Our Country’s Good,” a play about English convicts who land in bleak Australia. Theater offers a kind of resurrection.

In all, Pascal’s “Dybbuk” is a statement about the stubborn human will to live and to create. And indeed the play ends on an ambivalent note, as a seemingly long parade of victims march off--not only to death, but perhaps to a renewal of life.

There is surely hope in Pascal’s bleak piece, but it is also a reminder that we Jews are forever haunted—by our thousands of years of history and, more specifically, by our recent Holocaust.

--Irene Backalenick
August 15, 2010

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