By: Tim Treanor
The Dybbuk TheaterJ – Synetic Theater
So: what did you think a collaboration between Theater J and Synetic Theater would be like? After all, the coolly cerebral Theater J has staged productions about the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (Hannah and Martin) and about religious debates against the backdrop of the Inquisition (The Disputation). On the other hand, the wildly kinetic Synetic is committed to providing narrative through the movement of its actors. Synetic has been audacious enough to stage Hamlet without words (Hamlet…the Rest is Silence), for which it won the Helen Hayes Award for best Resident Play in 2003. The surprising answer is that The Dybbuk, in its most fundamental sense, appears to be a musical. Granted, there is not much singing. But, like a well-crafted musical, The Dybbuk tells the story of its characters’ outer lives through dialogue, and shows their inner lives through music and dance. That inner life is thoroughly and powerfully realized. The soaring score has a narrative force all of its own, and the bodies of the actors flow into the music with such grace, precision and authority that they seem like musical notes. Although the Dybbuk is separated from us by thousands of miles and hundreds of years, the movements and expressions of this production’s actors are so transparent that nothing is hidden from us.
The dialogue…well, that was not as successful. Adapted from Lithuanian scholar S. Anski’s play by Theater J Literary Director Hannah Hessel and Paata Tsikurishvili, Synetic’s Artistic Director, the dialogue is occasionally clunky and expositional, and when it is the actors had a hard time delivering it. One exception: Nathan Weinberger, who showed great naturalness and authenticity in a supporting role. Another exception: Joel Rueben Ganz, who fit the dialogue perfectly as a gentle, dignified, authoritative rabbi. The Dybbuk, which contains elements of Faust and Romeo and Juliet, tells the following story. Rev Sender (Iraki Kavsadze) has resolved to find a suitable husband for his daughter, Leah (Irina Tsikurishvili). Unbeknownst to Sender, though, the brilliant young scholar Chonnon (Andrew Zox, acquitting himself well in his Synetic debut) pines for Leah above all things. When Sender succeeds, Chonnon throws himself more deeply into his study of Kabbalah, in an effort to use its teachings to summon up forces which will derail the pending marriage. Instead, those forces rise up to kill Chonnon before the time God had planned for him, and he is thus forced to wander, at home nowhere. When Leah on her wedding night goes to Chonnon’s grave to weep, Chonnon suddenly enters her body and, united with his beloved in this terrifying way, sprints back to the wedding to square accounts with those who wronged him. There, Leah and her Dybbuk are ultimately overwhelmed and hauled before the Rabbi (Ganz), who performs a ceremony to dispossess the Dybbuk. The ceremony is successful, to the great distress of both Leah and Chonnon, who reach longingly for each other as they are driven farther and farther apart. At this moment, the holy Rabbi’s ceremony seems to manipulate the natural order as wrongly, and as dangerously, as had Chonnon’s earlier dabbling with the occult. But, as the Song of Songs reminds us, love is stronger than death, and in this case it seems stronger than Almighty God as well. The ending, stirring and moving, reminds us of the death-drenched time and geography in which The Dybbuk took place. There are many things right and beautiful about this production. The moment that Chonnon possessed Leah was a textbook demonstration of the possibilities that the theater of movement presents. I counted six distinct, electrified movements as Tsikurishvili transformed herself fully from the languid, depressed Leah to Chonnon-in-Leah, full of manic joy at their newly discovered self. Afterwards, she crashed her own wedding with a fierce energy which told more about the fused personalities of the united lovers than a dozen pages of narrative could. The wedding scene – a tad overlong – featured exquisitely-choreographed Georgian folk dances (for which Irina Tsikurishvilli was responsible as choreographer). Kavsadze and Phillip Fletcher, who played Leah’s unfortunate groom, particularly shined in those dances. Zox’ movements in the opening scene – sudden and jerky, as though he was in a silent movie – were spectacular. The play was everywhere informed by Synetic’s inspired theatricality, which seemed a form of magic itself. Set pieces seemed to materialize out of nowhere. The costumes (designed by Anastasia Simes) and lighting (designed by Colin Bills) were powerfully conceived and executed. Hanging over everything was the magnificent, uncredited score, which fit form, narrative and movement perfectly throughout. There were some things that didn’t work, too. The opening narrative, in which Chonnon’s synagogue buddies talk about Chonnon’s background and whether Sender should be considering him as a groom for Leah, was so stilted and self-conscious as to be painful. And nothing in the narrative leading to Chonnon’s death prepares us to believe that Leah longed for him in the same way that he longed for her. A few glances, and a fierce kiss which Leah gives the Torah after speaking to Chonnon, are our only clues. I found myself wishing that I had seen Leah and Chonnon in a scene which, with Synetic-style economy, would have shown their feelings. Instead, I got a chatty expositional narrative which didn’t give me the whole story. As unique and as powerful as this play was, it is minor Synetic…good, but not as good as it could have been, and as good as future Theater J-Synetic collaborations doubtlessly will be. The Dybbuk, a Theater J-Synetic Theater collaboration, runs through March 19 at Theater J’s Goldman Theater, 1529 16th Street NW. You can order tickets at 800.494.8497.