A 21st-century Dybbuk Goes on Stage

The Gesher Theater production 'The Dybbuk’ tries to differentiate itself from the iconic Habima version, is closer to the source than one might think.

Even before rehearsals began, the Gesher Theater production of “The Dybbuk” was an event. This singular theater, the second to emerge from Russia – 70 years after Habima – returns in Hebrew to the play by S. Ansky, which became a legend in world, Jewish and Israeli theater. The original Habima production in Moscow, translated into Hebrew by Hayyim Nachman Bialik, was directed by Yevgeny Vakhtangov, who was known for his ability to create an expressive stage. The current production at the Jaffa-based theater is directed by Gesher’s founder, Yevgeny Arye.

Roee Chen notes in the program that the play he wrote under the inspiration of Ansky’s “The Dybbuk,” only makes use of the characters. Obviously, he wants to distance himself from the mythic original, but he is actually closer to it than one might think. Here, too, there is a broken promise of marriage, and a groom who immerses himself in the abysses of the kabbala, who dies and returns to claim his bride in the form of a dybbuk, a possessing spirit. Still, the viewpoint and the language take into account that there was once a mythic production, refer to it, and try to denote what differentiates the current version from it.

Accordingly, we find on the stage Lea’s mother (played by Neta Shpigelman), who looks like a copy of Hanna Rovina in the character of Lea from the original Habima production. There is a dance of beggars and a feast of the poor, with expressively grotesque figures. The innovation, then, lies in the psychological viewpoint of later generations, with a father who refuses to part from his soon-to-be-wedded daughter, and a daughter who rebels against a coerced match and against her suppression.

Moreover, the world of the dead, which in the original play exists only in the person of Hanan, who is on his way there, here receives a full presence, ironic to a degree (by Alexander Senderovich and Yevgeny Terletzky, among others), though by and large it is conciliated and colorful, a place where one can live. The world of the living, in contrast, is gray and twisted, and personified above all by Lea’s father, Sender (Doron Tavori, whose presence is, as usual, impressive). He is a vulgar, petty lord-and-master who views the “dybbuk” as personal abuse of him, doesn’t believe in it and attributes it to his daughter’s contrariness.

Hanan, as played by Israel (Sasha) Demidov, is as spiritual as expected, but also soft and somewhat submissive. In terms of the play, the active character is Lea. She clings to the dybbuk as her rebellion, and Efrat Ben-Zur throws herself into the part with all her body and might. Gilad Kletter, as Rabbi Azriel, represents the religious establishment, but also the voice of cold reason, whose surprising tone lends his scenes a dimension that verges on the ludicrous. Despite the reverential approach to the subject and the myth, there is a great deal of the theater’s everyday secularity in the play.

Yevgeny Arye is adept at mounting impressive stage sequences, in this case with a rotating box in the center, which becomes, as needed, a synagogue, a ritual bath and the world of the dead. Every minute of the play is compelling and lovely, and provokes the imagination. Does this 21st century “Dybbuk” have the power to seize the viewers’ imagination? That is a question I cannot answer. Maybe because it’s time for “The Dybbuk” to become just another play. One more attempt to vivify the space between the two worlds – the world of the dead and the world of the living, the world of myth and the world of reality, and the world of the theater hall.