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One hundred years since first spooking audiences in Eastern Europe, S. An-Sky’s “The Dybbuk” has possessed Zoom and YouTube.
In 1920 the Vilna Troupe debuted its legendary production of the most well-known Yiddish play ever staged. Shane Baker, director of the Congress for Jewish Culture had long planned to mark the anniversary with a revival of the show. An acclaimed Yiddish actor, Baker actually learned much of his craft from Luba Kadison, who starred in many of the Vilna Troupe’s productions of “The Dybbuk” in the interwar period. Despite the pandemic, Baker and his international all-star crew of Yiddish actors put on one of the best theatrical productions I’ve seen since the lights went out on Broadway. It can be streamed online for free, with English subtitles (click “CC”).
Even if you are, like me, “oysgezoomt,”(i.e. suffering from Zoom fatigue), the production’s choice of Zoom as a medium is no excuse to skip it. Just the opposite. While far too many actors have approached Zoom as if it were a normal stage, this revival of “The Dybbuk” plays to the strengths of the medium. It has a haunting ethereal quality well-suited to a play that is often, only half-jokingly, referred to as a Yiddish mash-up of “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Exorcist.” Far from your typical theater experience, where meaning is found in the ways that actors relate to one another in physical space, here the stars are confined to two-dimensional boxes, only their heads and shoulders visible. The effect is something between radio-theater and digital phantasmagoria as actors flicker on and off the screen like hallucinations of haunted graveyards.
Directed by Allen Lewis Rickman, the international production features klezmer star Daniel Kahn as Khonen, the mystically-inclined yeshiva student whose soul possesses his love-interest Leah (Yelena Shmulenson); Israeli stage and film legend Mike Burstein as Reb Sender Brinitser, Leah’s father; Yiddish singer and actor Mendy Cahan as the holy man Reb Azriel Miropolyer and Shane Baker as the town Rabbi Reb Shimshon. The Argentine Yiddish actor Rafael Goldwasser, Canadian Yiddish scholar and raconteur Michael Wex, Israeli actor Amitai Keder and American stage veteran Suzanne Toren round out the international cast.
Like every production of “The Dybbuk,” whether adapted for film, radio or theater, the performance lives or dies on the strength of the actress who plays Leah. Yelena Shmuelenson steals the show with an unforgettable portrayal of madness and demonic possession that manages both to inspire sympathy and be genuinely creepy. It’s a delicate balance that I’ve often seen fall flat. If the role is played too menacingly, the audience can’t empathize with Leah’s anguished cries. But if she is portrayed too conventionally, the play is no longer frightening. Shmuelenson, whose preternatural ability to switch on a dime between tragedy and comedy has served her well everywhere from the Yiddish stage to Netflix and HBO, gives a performance that, like the show’s titular dybbuk, you won’t be able to get out of your soul.