- The Washington Times - Friday, February 17, 2006

After a wobbly start, “The Dybbuk” grows into a haunting and emotive meditation on the transcendence of love over death.

This new adaptation of Russian ethnographer S. Anski’s 1914 Yiddish play marks a collaboration between the movement-based Synetic Theater company and Theater J, known for its dialogue-rich productions of Jewish-themed works. The fluid and cinematic approach of Synetic’s director Paata Tsikurishvili succeeds admirably, although the company’s trademark austere, ascetic style and the recorded music seem a bit bare in Theater J’s jewel-box space.

There’s a second problem, similar to one that marred Synetic’s production of “Jason and the Argonauts.” The physical training and discipline the company exhibits is peerless, but when it comes to pulling off speaking roles and expressing character through dialogue, the disparity between the visual and verbal world is alarming.

Certain actors here seem at home with naturalistic speech, including Nathan Weinberger, Joel Reuben Ganz, and Dan Istrate. Others, such as Irakli Kavsadze and Armand Sindoni — think Zero Mostel at his most manic — adopt a broad, thundering style more suited to physical comedy, preferably the silent kind.

Mr. Anski’s play — originally developed with aid from Konstantin Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theatre — was the result of extensive interviews with Russian peasants about Jewish fables and superstitions. The term “dybbuk” is derived from the Hebrew word meaning “to cling” and refers to the wandering soul of someone who died before his time.

Mr. Tsikurishvili and co-adapter Hannah Hessel move the action to the Caucasus region of Georgia, and the production becomes, at times, a vibrant showpiece for Georgian-Jewish culture, particularly in Anastasia Ryurikov Simes’ lavishly detailed, folkloric costumes rendered in a palette of black, white and red. A wedding scene where the male guests burst into athletic dancing (choreographed by Irina Tsikurishvili) is particularly arresting, putting the tendency at American weddings to do the Electric Slide to shame.

Yet, the impact of “The Dybbuk” lies not in its depiction of ethnic history and custom. It is in the unearthly beauty and yearning expressed in the scenes where the spiritual and corporeal worlds delicately intermingle. This is a place of mist and smoke, where Hebrew letters float in the air, torturing Yeshiva student Chonnon (the handsome and ethereal Andrew Zox), who does not have the Torah on his mind, but the lovely Leah (Miss Tsikurishvili).

They are soul mates, but her money-minded father Sender (Irakli Kavsadze) has betrothed her to a rich merchant (Philip Fletcher). Desperate, Chonnon turns to the forbidden practice of the Kabbalah for a solution to his dilemma. But the pursuit of meaning in the mystical symbols only drives him to a demonic frenzy. Before the ceremony, he perishes from exhaustion and grief.

Instead of a wedding veil, Leah becomes enshrouded in the soul of the dead Chonnon. We’ve seen glimpses of passion in Leah before — when instructed to kiss the Torah for luck, she plants a lover’s kiss on the scrolls instead of a chaste peck — but the possession unleashes her sensual, sinister side. Leah’s defiant dance at the wedding is rife with voluptuous recklessness, as Chonnon’s spirit grips her in throes that are both convulsive and ecstatic.

At first, she responds only to his voice as if a puppet on a string, her body arched and taut. Chonnon then takes eerie custody of his bride, and the pair wrap themselves around each other — the tighter their embrace, the more their souls fly free. The moment of Leah’s final abandonment is exquisite, as she slowly loosens her grip on this world to join her beloved in the next.

“The Dybbuk” fuses romance with a ghost story in a production that suggests that for some lovers, death is not the end, but a shivery beginning.

***

WHAT: “The Dybbuk,” new adaptation of S. Anski’s play by Hannah Hessel and Paata Tsikurishvili

WHERE: Washington DC-JCC, 1529 16th St., NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Sundays, 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through March 19.

TICKETS: $15 to $45

PHONE: 800/494-TIXS


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