The Israeli theatre company Gesher is bringing its production of The Dybbuk to Toronto this month for its North American premiere.
The play has become a canonical piece of Hebrew and Yiddish theatre. “It’s one of the most important and classic Hebrew plays, I felt that it’s time to get back to it, and to enter through a new door to this play,” said Roy Chen, the playwright for this production. “We [Jews] didn’t have theatre for 2,000 years, it was forbidden and we started very late. Now we have to create our own classics, our own platform.”
The Dybbuk was originally written in Russian between 1913-1916, and later translated into Yiddish, by S. Ansky (Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport). It was first performed in Yiddish in 1920, by the Vilna Troupe in Warsaw. In 1922, Hayim Nahman Bialik created a Hebrew version of the play which was performed in the Habima Theatre in Moscow.
In its essence, The Dybbuk is about Lea, a woman possessed by the spirit of Hanan, a poor yeshiva student who dies from a broken heart after hearing that Lea is engaged to another man. Hanan is then caught between two worlds, where he is neither dead nor alive, causing his soul to turn into a dybbuk, a malicious spirit according to Jewish folklore, that possesses Lea on her wedding day.
“In Judaism, the dybbuk is not like a demon possessed in Christianity, its always somebody you knew,” explained Chen. “It’s a soul of a person who was a member of the community, but is someone who made a sin and came back to ask for forgiveness.”
Chen said he wanted to approach this play with a modern and psychological perspective, which portrays Lea as the main protagonist and as a 40-year-old unmarried woman, instead of very young woman as she is in the original play.
“I really didn’t want the hero to be a man, I wanted it to be [Lea] and I wanted to talk about her,” said Chen. “I understand that when Ansky wrote it, it was a mystical play. I wrote a psychological play, which is of course inspired by Ansky – its an open homage to him but nonetheless, it is an original play.”
Later on, Chen realized that he was not satisfied with just having one side of the plot, and decided to add some more mystical aspects to the storyline by keeping the character of Hanan present throughout the entire play. This is a big difference from the original play, where Hanan does not reappear after the first scene.
“[Lea and Hanan] are together, and in a way, it’s not even clear if he is her dybbuk or if she is his dybbuk, and where is the exact border between life and death,” said Chen. “I was really moving from a mystical to psychological to realistic genre, to funny, crazy, surrealistic comedy and I think these ingredients finished The Dybbuk, our Dybbuk.”
The Gesher Theatre company was founded in 1991, when Russian-born Yevgeny Arye – who is directing this play – immigrated to Israel from Moscow, and together with a group of Russian actors, created this troupe.
Arye studied psychology and theatre and became associate professor at Moscow’s Russian Academy of Theatrical Arts and a director at the top theatres in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Riga.
Upon immigrating to Israel, he became Gesher’s artistic director, and has helped the theatre win a place of prominence in the Israeli theatre scene and throughout the world. They have created over 60 productions, represented Israel in numerous international festivals, and received countless awards for their work.
“Gesher,” is the Hebrew word for bridge, and signifies its desire to link the many cultures and languages that exist in Israel. The performances are always accompanied with subtitles in several languages, and the company has created a unique theatre that combines Russian traditional theatrical principles with a more contemporary and original approach.
This version of The Dybbuk will be performed in Hebrew, with English and Russian subtitles. Many well-known Israeli actors will be performing, including Israeli actor and singer Efrat Ben Zur as Lea and Tashkent-born Israel Demidov as Hanan.
Gesher Theatre’s The Dybbuk is presented by Show One Productions, and will be performed at the Elgin Theatre at 189 Yonge St., Toronto on Sept. 29 and 30.**
** An earlier version of this story contained wrong dates.