View the review on the New York Times website here.
“The Dybbuk,” the 1914 play written by S. Ansky that is a pre-eminent work of Yiddish theater, dramatizes the Ashkenazi Jewish myth of a dislocated soul that inhabits a living person. Ansky’s play itself has something of a shape-shifting spirit, revised many times for the stage, film, dance and even opera. In revisiting the story, the English playwright and director Julia Pascal, who has often mined Jewish themes for their universality, has framed it in the context of the Holocaust, powerfully elevating a folk tale to an existential meditation.
First performed in London in 1992, Ms. Pascal’s “Dybbuk” toured widely in Europe but hasn’t been performed in the United States until now, as part of a new four-week Dream Up Festival at the Theater for the New City.
In this exceptional rendering a dybbuk’s essence is simplified. It is the soul of a person who has died too early, and the play opens with a monologue by Judith (Juliet Dante), a contemporary British Jew describing a trip to Germany. Unable to shake her thoughts of the generations lost to the Nazis, Judith is haunted by the faces she sees in dreams — her own dybbuks.
The scene changes to a wartime ghetto, and Judith becomes one of five Jews living in too-close quarters on little more than fear and memories. When not imagining banquets to feast on, the five — none terribly religious — obsess over what has befallen them. But as the play notes, it doesn’t matter how you define yourself when others are hijacking your identity for their own purposes. Eventually the group unifies culturally, chanting Kaddish, the mourning prayer, and acting out parts of Ansky’s tale, including a vivid dance of possession.
This production, directed by Ms. Pascal and designed by Thomas Kampe, makes ingenious use of simple props like blankets and ladders to convey the debased poverty of the ghetto, the customs of Ansky’s shtetl life, even the grinding forces that confront these souls. The cast members all handle multiple roles unflappably yet with urgency, giving numerous characters colorings of their own.
“Dybbuk” builds to a remarkable climax, with layers of sounds — the barking of orders, the chugging of trains — punctuating a trip to the death camps. To the swelling strains of Mozart’s Requiem, the ensemble depicts dozens of passengers, gaunt and ravaged, disembarking to meet their doom. Well after the play ends, this harrowing image holds fast.