By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
The frightening Jewish folkloric notion of a malevolent “dybbuk” draws that name from the Hebrew word for attachment — which is exactly what a dybbuk does. It’s the lost soul of a dead person that for various reasons is relegated to wander, and can attach itself to a living person.
The classic story of The Dybbuk was written in Russian in 1917 by S. Ansky, and has had its own transformations. A Dybbuk, a 1995 stage version by celebrated American playwright Tony Kushner, has never been produced professionally here until now.
It’s being done by Ego Po Classic Theater in a way that salutes the story — the production bows to the melodrama inherent in this tale (or any tale) of a dybbuk but also offers a sincere reflection on its place in Jewish culture.
No one flinches when one woman blurts in a gentle warning that the Torah is powerful because it is “made of black and of fire” or when a learned rabbi tells the dybbuk: “I will with my outstretched arm hurl anathema toward you.” This is Ukraine, in a time of pogroms that killed Jews and destroyed villages, when people clung to folktales with one hand, and to their demanding religious practice with the other.
Ego Po’s artistic director, Lane Savadove, directs A Dybbuk, the final show in the company’s season of Jewish-themed theater, on Matheus Fiuza’s set of several locations, draped on two sides by a handsome curtain of fabrics made to look like large prayer shawls. Kushner’s setup for the plot is a bit plodding — and Savadove’s unsteady timing in the early scenes doesn’t help, but when the play begins to swing quickly into different mood shifts and then into mysticism, the production gains steadily in intensity. Overall, A Dybbuk is a highly stylized form of entertainment with its super-faithful Yeshiva boys, its observant women and its storybook Jewish sensibility.
Essentially, it’s a bizarre love story. A seemingly wayward Yeshiva student (Robert DaPonte) is overtaken by his longing for the daughter of a rich and learned man (Brian McCann). But the student dies, and his soul overtakes her when she is a bride.
The second act is The Exorcist kosher-style, in the home of a rabbi (David Blatt, in a thoughtful performance) who must rid the bride of her dybbuk. This half is pure Kushner — lyrical and fierce, emotional and with an intense mysticism; in odd but clear ways, A Dybbuk mirrors his triumphant two-play Angels in America, whose first part unfolds a few blocks away at the Wilma Theater.
The bride in A Dybbuk is played by Rachel Kitson, who at one point shakes and shimmies and does everything but turn her head 360 degrees, but she convinced me that she would if she could. She speaks in character and also as DaPonte’s dybbuk, who gives those lines in tandem – an eerie and rich effect.
The most impressive stars of the show are costume designer Katherine Fritz, who dresses 10 cast members in the roles of about 40, and the emphatic actor Ed Swidey, who plays a messenger, and through most of the plot we’re not sure for whom. In a play about souls, Swidey’s character ends up as the soul of the play, and in his forceful performance of a man we can’t figure out, Swidey himself is the soul of the cast.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, email@example.com, or #philastage on Twitter.
A Dybbuk: Presented by Ego Po Classic Theater at Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut St., through June 17. TIckets: $20-$50. Information: 1-800-595-4849 or www.egopo.org.