Loeb Experimental Theatre,
April 25 - May 3
Tragedy works by haunting the psyche—infecting memory with its persistence and perverting identity to the point of total self-denial. Yet it can also serve to preserve one’s past and sense of self, and transform itself into a means of affirmation. Julia Pascal’s play-within-a-play, The Dybbuk, explores this perpetual haunting through the lens of modern Jewish identity, in a stark, powerful and moving production, directed in the Loeb Experimental Theater by Graham A. Sack ’03.
The show begins with Rachel, a young Jewish woman (Erica R. Lipez ’05) who reflects on the insecurity and self-loathing of present-day Jews like herself. She states flatly: “I go to Germany and think that Hitler won.”
As she delivers her opening monologue, four actors stand behind her, backs facing the audiences, echoing her words. Their voices create an eerie, trance-like effect, as they act as the play’s own dybbuks—spirits of those who die before their time and return to haunt the living. The actors then turn forward to reveal the stars of David on their coats, and the scene transports us into a Jewish ghetto, where the inhabitants await their delivery to Nazi concentration camps.
Onstage, the actors stand boxed in a wire cage that dominates the stunning and effective set, designed by Andrew D. Boch ’03. The set immediately establishes the production’s high level of professionalism. Inside this holding pen, the five characters bemoan their hunger, fatigue and their Jewish identity that has led them to this fate. Naomi (Sarah L. Thomas ’04) insists that she doesn’t belong with the others because her mother was a Christian, while Rachel asks whether any of the prisoners even believes in God and whether being Jewish is anything more than an imposed construct. The characters’ embittered dialogue immediately implicates the audience.
The side panels of the cage lift as the five characters begin to reenact scenes from Solomon Anski’s classic the Dybbuk, inspired by the traditional story of a young woman whose dead lover comes back to possess her. The wonderment of the actors—as their story-telling literally and metaphorically lifts their prison—is a moving testament to the elegance and inventiveness of the set.
In fact, what moves the audience in Pascal’s play and in Sacks’ production are the stories interspersed and interrupted by gunshots and glaring lights—brief glimpses into the characters’ lives, the narratives they scrape together to forget or to testify to their suffering and the memories they cling to in order to preserve their sense of self and humanity. The sensation of brushing against a woman’s leg in a train ride and the spectacle of a tight-rope walker comprise two of the nights’ most subtly compelling and spine-tingling stories.
The simple suitcases that dominate the set typify the effective, understated force of the play. The suitcases serve as impromptu set pieces in the characters’ performance and are still banged against walls and thrown against the ground when the threat of the Nazi’s impending approach terrorizes them. But their presence reminds the audience of the more universal condition of these Jews—their forced transcience and the memories, culture and traditions that remain the lasting possessions they will carry over into their impending ordeal.
But the show’s insistence on cinematic effect sometimes leads to forced and unnecessarily maudlin moments in the action. Occasionally the music drowns out the actors’ voices and ultimately dictates, not complements, the mood of a scene.
The production feels weakest when the spontaneity and naturalness of the actors comes into conflict with the excessive staging and overly articulate, practiced movement. This brand of staging may be more appropriate, though arguably still overbearing, for the allegorical hyperbole of a show like La Dispute, as directed by Anne Bogart earlier this season at the American Repertory Theatre. But in this show, we’re instead left with the impression of a well-rehearsed and manipulated performance, even while the premise of the play is on the organic and almost desperate nature of the characters’ acting. The staging ultimately undermines the power derived from the underlying, nuanced tension of personal and cultural insecurity.
The final sequence—a synchronized, expressionistic movement sequence set to the Lachrymose of Mozart’s Requiem—should serve as the culmination of the characters’ personal exploration but instead deteriorates into a stagy and contrived presentation. The finale begs the question as to why Pascal felt the need to aestheticize the organic elements of the drama and to use a grandiose, classical score to drill in the point of an already self-evident tragedy.
And yet, we can still forgive this self-conscious direction because of the simple, undeniable power of what the characters say and what they’re driven to do. Their self-hatred and denial as Jews, interwoven with their singular affirmation of faith— “shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad,”- Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One— is a stark and brutal statement that stuns.
The whole production is held together by the glue of the cast and their honest and straight-forward portrayals. The characters are able to tell their stories convincingly, and with a vulnerability and immediacy that makes us listen. Jojo S. Karlin ’05, as the leader of the storytellers, commands yet does well to avoid sentimentality, as do the rest of her castmates. Lipez merits mention as well for her unapologetic chracterization that captivates the audience from the start.
At its best, the production reminds us of the power of art, of storytelling and of shared culture, without itself resorting to gimmicky aesthetics—which, ironically, belie the play’s most poignant and universal theme: that art, especially in the time of tragedy, should not merely be for art’s sake, but instead a means to affirm ourselves, to persevere and to remember.
—Crimson Arts theater critic Michelle Chun can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.