This article has been translated from it’s original Yiddish by Vassili Schedrin
The year 2020 withered away, a difficult, dramatic year with much sorrow and loss. People, however, do not give in, nor lose themselves. They believe and are able to see bright rays of hope through the dark veil of sadness.
One such ray of hope, called Zoom, has brightened the lives of many scholars, teachers, and lovers of Yiddish language and culture all over the world. Online classes in Yiddish and Yiddish literature, taught by world-class professors have proliferated and are now available virtually anywhere on the globe; Zoom conferences, lectures, concerts in Yiddish and simply friendly gatherings for a schmooze are now a plenty. Last year, finally, Yiddish theater seized the opportunity provided by Zoom.
On December 18, 2020, the New York-based Congress for Jewish Culture, headed by Shane Baker, hosted a stage, or rather Zoom adaptation of the Jewish theatrical classics—Sholomo Ansky’s The Dybbuk—produced and directed by Allen Lewis Rickman. While the pandemic kept everyone locked in their homes, Zoom allowed for, first, a cast from five countries; second, the possibility of a professional international Yiddish theater (no longer an empty dream!); third, there is now the material and the company with which to come to the table and enjoy.
In his previous productions and directorial work, Rickman has more than once demonstrated the propensity for a chamber theatre. Rickman was able to scale down, or, actually, zoom out the “broad canvases” of The Dybbuk to fit a computer screen, while keeping it as dramatically saturated as the best stage or film versions.
Rickman literally framed the performance by using the ubiquitous Zoom feature—participants’ windows—stylized as vignettes for the play’s characters. They peek out of their windows like ghosts from a dark, mysterious world. This set enhances the atmosphere of the play, based on a folk legend and its main message that no one is allowed to deceive fate: a person is born with it and it accompanies them until death.
Rickman gently “peeled” all the “excesses” from the drama that did not fit into his directorial concept, leaving the dense folk core. Particular emphasis is placed on the character of the Messenger (Raphael Goldwasser)—an obscure figure from the legendary vanished world. He is narrator, commentator, prophet: he is everywhere.
Rickman creatively curated the play, leaving only 10 out of original 30 characters, including the voice of the English-speaking narrator (Rickman himself). In today’s Yiddish theater it is common that actors only learn their roles in Yiddish without learning the language. Rickman’s cast included real Yiddish speakers for whom the language is part of their lives. Moreover, everyone speaks in their own dialect, learned and spoken at home. Great care was taken to make them sound like an ensemble, and avoid false intonations, clichés, and banalities found in other productions of The Dybbuk, staged many times in various languages and theaters around the world.
Without diminishing the art of such actors as Mike Burstyn, Daniel Kahn, Shane Baker, Amitai Kedar, and Michael Wex, it should be said that performance of Mendy Cahan (Rebe Azrielke Miropolier), Raphael Goldwasser (Messenger), Yelena Shmulenson (Leah), and Suzanne Toren (Frade) stood out.
The graphic images of Shlomo Yudovin, a Russian Jewish artist who took part in Shlomo Ansky’s famous ethnographic expedition of the 1910s to the Pale of Jewish Settlement, are intertwined throughout the performance and amplify the atmosphere of the show. In addition, from time to time, letters of the Hebrew alphabet chaotically appear on a dark screen, reminding us that according to Kabbalah, the world was created from the 22 Hebrew letters.
The performance was further enhanced by music—variations of Hasidic melodies played by the well-known clarinetist Michael Winograd. Special thanks is due to Uri Schreter, technical editor, whose ideas helped transcend the limited possibilities of digital theater.
The Dybbuk has a magical power: Israel’s national theater Habimah began with a performance of this play in Hebrew in 1921. It was also the most successful production of one of the world’s best Yiddish companies, the Vilna Troupe. Who knows, possibly, 100 years since its premiere, the timeless Dybbuk will once again play its fateful role, this time creating an International Virtual Yiddish Theater.
A video recording of The Dybbuk is available here.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.