Saturday, August 29, 2015

Review: 'A Dybbuk'

Ego Po Classic Theater offers a solid version of Tony Kushner's stage adaptation of an iconic Jewish folkloric tale. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews.

Review: 'A Dybbuk'

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Rachel Kitson and Robert DaPonte in Ego Po Classic Theater's production of "A Dybbuk." Photo by Ian Paul Guzzone.

By Howard Shapiro

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,, 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  

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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