Caught Between Worlds
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Caught Between Worlds

S. Ansky’s ‘A Dybbuk for Two People’ resonates with 24/6 company.

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

With all the stress of the holiday season, many of us find ourselves acting a little out of character and wondering afterwards what got into us. How appropriate, then, that the 24/6 theater company, a troupe whose members maintain Sabbath and holiday observance while staging classic and modern plays with a Jewish twist, is presenting Bruce Myers’ celebrated adaptation of S. Ansky’s “The Dybbuk,” the iconic Yiddish play about spirit possession. The play, in which two actors play all the parts, will be presented Sunday afternoon at the JCC Manhattan. This year marks the centennial of Ansky’s writing of the play.

Founded four years ago, 24/6 stages its productions in sync with the Jewish calendar. Its production of Hendrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” which turned Nora into an Esther-like heroine, was performed at Purim time, as if it were a Purim shpil. Then came Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” staged in connection with Tu b’Shevat, and Tony Kushner’s “Notes on Akiba,” staged during the week of Passover.

Directed by Yoni Oppenheim, “A Dybbuk For Two People” premiered at the Public Theater in the late 1970s, starring Myers, who won an Obie for his performance. A Jewish husband (Leor Hackel) and wife (Michal Birnbaum) sit down to Shabbat dinner and find themselves drawn into the world of the play, which is about a young shtetl-dwelling woman who, during her wedding, is suddenly inhabited by the spirit of her deceased former fiancé, to whom she had been promised by his father.

Myers’ version plays up the kabbalistic aspects of the work, in which both the Sabbath and the events of the play are infused with otherworldly significance. Live drumming will accompany the production, as a reference to the pounding on the table that Jews often do when singing at the table after Shabbat dinner.

In an interview, Oppenheim told The Jewish Week that the company was inspired to stage the play by a series of tragic events last summer, including the kidnapping and murder of the three Jewish yeshiva students in Israel and the death from cancer of a close friend who was a member of the Drisha Arts Fellowship. “We were trying to figure out to deal with people no longer being here,” he explained.

One of the major themes of the play, Oppenheim noted, is the rupture in Jewish life caused by the intrusion of the modern world into that of the shtetl. While Leah is possessed because of a promise broken between two fathers, he noted, the play points metaphorically to the Jewish people “breaking their own ties to Judaism and then being possessed and reconnecting to it” in the twentieth century. “The play explores the two worlds of heaven and earth, but also of Russian nationalism and the Jewish community.”

As observant Jews who want to participate fully in the life of the New York theater, Oppenheim said that he and the other members of the company identify with this feeling of being betwixt and between two different places. “It’s like walking a tightrope,” he said. “The feelings of courage, artistry and danger are all there for us.”

“A Dybbuk for Two People” will be performed on Sunday, Dec. 28 at 3 p.m. at the JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Ave. at 76th Street . For tickets, $15 ($20 at the door), call the JCC at (646) 505-5708 or visit www.jccmanhattan.org. On the day of the show, tickets will be available at the door.

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