Good things come to those who wait. If there’s one thing we’ve learned during this pandemic, it’s that we need to have patience. Help is on the way, but if we as a nation follow protocols and have strong leadership, we can each make a difference, even with an administration that has turned its back on its people. We also have to be patient with the return of live theater as companies around the world experiment with Zoom, livestreaming, recording onstage without an audience, and other attempts to bring storytelling to a starving public.
So there I was on December 9, watching the hundredth-anniversary premiere of Theater for the New City’s livestreamed revival of the popular Yiddish play The Dybbuk, performed live onstage and broadcast over the Stellar platform. The chat function was on, so virtual attendees started getting ornery quickly when the show didn’t start exactly on time. And once it did, there were significant technical problems involving superimposed text, the green screening, and, most important, the sound, with a screeching electronic score drowning out the dialogue. Several people in the chat began complaining, even demanding a refund. But a solitary voice of reason explained that this is an opening night different from in-person opening nights and everyone should calm down. And she was right, because the tech crew was on the case, and after a near-disastrous beginning, the rest of the play was wonderful.
Written in 1914 by Jewish playwright S. An-ski, aka Shloyme Zaynvl Rapoport, who hailed from what is now Belarus, The Dybbuk premiered at the Elyseum Theatre in Warsaw on December 9, 1920, one month after An-ski’s death at the age of fifty-seven. Presented in association with New Yiddish Rep, this new English-language adaptation (with a fair sprinkling of Yiddish) is by NYR artistic director David Mandelbaum. The Dybbuk takes place in an old Jewish shtetl, where a long-arranged match between Menashe and Leah, the daughter of the wealthy Sender, dooms the love young student Khanan has for her. But on her wedding day, she is possessed by a spirit who will not let her marry Menashe, and the case soon comes before the judgment of the learned rabbi.
Director Jesse Freedman eventually works out the kinks in real time and gets everything in sync — with lighting by Alexander Bartieneff, sound by Eamon Goodman, and video by Tatiana Stolpovskaya — resulting in a moving and delightful production that features fun backgrounds and solid performances by Darrel Blackburn, Amy Coleman, Hannah Gee, Lev Harvey, Lucie Lalouche, Thomas Morris, and Mandelbaum as the rabbi. “A play about possession seems particularly suited to the times. The country has been possessed by the evil spirits of strife and division and could use a good exorcism to bring it back to its senses,” Mandelbaum said in a statement. “An intrepid group of artists is soldiering on through this pandemic minefield to honor the one-hundredth anniversary of this iconic play with the battle cry of their calling: ‘The show must go on.’ This will be a spiritual fusion of live performance and digital artistry. The ‘possession’ of live theater by the spirits of techno-wizardry.”
So be patient; the show will go on. It might not get off to a big start, but it packs quite a wallop by the finish.
For more on The Dybbuk, which was also made into a classic 1937 Yiddish film directed by Michał Waszyński, you can check out the Congress for Jewish Culture’s recent panel discussion “The Dybbuk at 100” on Facebook with playwright, translator, and theater historian Nahma Sandrow, Baruch College assistant professor and author Debra Caplan, and author and UT Austin senior lecturer in Yiddish Itzik Gottesman, moderated by writer, translator, actress, and theater historian Caraid O’Brien. The organization will also be presenting its own production of The Dybbuk on December 14 at 7:00 in Yiddish with Mike Burstyn, Shane Baker, Mendy Cahan, Refoyel Goldwasser, Amitai Kedar, Yelena Shmulenson, Suzanne Toren, and Michael Wex, directed by Allen Lewis Rickman; it can be seen here.