by Lynn on June 18, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont.

Adapted by Anton Piatigorsky
From the play by S. Ansky
Directed by Albert Schultz
Set by Lorenzo Savoini
Costumes by Shannon Lea Doyle
Lighting by Bonnie Beecher
Composition, Mike Ross with Richard Feren
Sound, by Richard Feren and Mike Ross
Starring: Hailey Gillis
Diego Matamoros
Colin Palangio
Jordan Pettle
Alex Poch-Goldin
William Webster

A tremendously moving play in an often affecting production, which sometimes gets carried away with its own cleverness.

The Story. The story takes place in the 1860s, in a shtetl, (a predominantly Jewish town), in Russia. Hasids (orthodox Jewish men) discuss points of Jewish law, tradition, commentary etc. Seven years before, Channon, a scholar came to study there. He was invited to dinner by Sender, a devout Jew and a rich man. Sender opened his home to ‘strangers’ as part of his duty to fellow Jews. Channon sat across the table from Sender’s daughter, Leah, and fell in love with her. He never told her. She found him attractive and liked him. Either through tradition or shyness Channon never declared his intentions to Sender either. But to earn the right to declare his intentions and be worthy of her Channon left the shtetl to wander and study. He returned seven years later. Leah remembers him. She is friendly to him. He prays harder and fasts and hopes to make his move but learns that Sender has made a match for Leah with a rich family. Channon feels he has no chance. He feels his penance and faith have been betrayed and he dies of a broken heart. Leah is saddened by his death, and feels even worse because of the man her father has picked for her.

In death Channon takes command. His troubled, restless soul takes possession of a living person, and that person is Leah. Thus begins a fierce fight to exorcise the Dybbuk. There are startling revelations along the way. The result is a gripping, heartrending story that transcends time, religion and worlds.

The Production. Anton Piatigorsky has adapted S. Ansky’s play with his usual sensitivity. This is a work that is deeply literary, poetic, mystical and evocative of that time long ago. Piatigorsky references the Kabbalah, religious thought, questions of religion and Judaism.

Director Albert Schultz and his design team have created a murky atmosphere that bridges two worlds. The sets by Lorenzo Savoini of the synagogue, Sender’s house, a rabbi’s house, and a cemetery are rough hewn, dark, almost oppressive which is apt. Bonnie Beecher’s splendid, evocative lighting showers down shafts of misty light. There is a scene that tells the story of a couple who died under the chupah (canopy) as they were marrying. The couple and the canopy sway as they are pulled between the world of life and the world of the dead and finally descend into the world of the dead.

Occasionally a Dybbuk is an evil spirit. Not so with Channon. His is a heartbroken, desperate spirit. While Channon (Colin Palangio) is meek and quiet speaking when he is alive, in death his restless soul is commanding, angry and forceful when he possesses Leah (Hailey Gillis) and answers those who are trying to remove him from her body.

His ‘possessing’ her is also moving. He stands behind her, his arms around her. In her way she is holding him to her as well—two souls melded.

Colin Palangio gives a heartbreaking performance as Channon. He is almost stooped from penance and praying to be worthy of Leah. His voice is soft. When he sees her his gaze is intense. As Leah, Hailey Gillis has the confidence of a young woman who knows her mind and feels she can express it. She brightens when she sees Channon. She is attracted to him. She is not attracted to the young man her father has chosen for her and her upset at this situation is moving. Her father, Sender, is concerned as well. As Sender, Alex Poch-Goldin has that attitude of a man in control. He has money. That has weight in his community. But Sender is also a loving father, and Poch-Goldin is visibly moved by his daughter’s distress. And when she is possessed, here is a father who doesn’t know what to do to help her and that’s devastating to him.

On the whole this is a good production that serves the play, but I do have concerns. When Sender needs for the help of a learned Rabbi to help deal with the Dybbuk, he goes to Rabbi Azriel , played by a distinguished, older William Webster. Webster is commanding in his calmness and his knowledge in how to deal with such a problem. But when Rabbi Azriel needs further help with the problem, he goes to a Rabbi even more learned than he is. He goes to Rabbi Shimshin who is played by Jordan Pettle who is probably 30 years younger than Webster. Now that can’t be right. The world of the shtetl is precise. Those who are learned are elderly. Pettle, while a fine actor, serious, committed, thoughtful, it’s a real stretch to believe that the elder Rabbi Azriel would defer to a much young Rabbi Shimshin for help in this problem.

There is a messenger (Diego Matamoros) who seems to deliver words of wisdom about both worlds. He has an important message for Rabbi Azriel in his attempts to exorcise the Dybbuk. What he says is simple but profound. Surely that deserves a moment to sink in and startle Rabbi Azriel. Yet director Albert Schultz does not give Webster the moment to ponder it—Webster just carries on as if nothing serious is said.

For all his good intentions Schultz tends to give into over direction and fussy attention grabbing business in his productions. Case in point is a shadow image that initially looks impressive, but on further reflection makes no sense.

Both Leah and Channon stand about ten feet apart from either other, with their backs to each other. Both hold their arms out in front of them. Yet the shadow image on the back wall is of two people facing each other, their arms straight out towards each other, with their finger tips touching. If we are to view Leah and Channon that shadow image is wrong. It’s a lot of effort with confusing results to suggest that Leah and Channon are connected in a spiritual world. We are really taken out of a scene that should grab us and connect us to those two spirits. You want to tell Schultz that so much of his production is dandy, so enough with the ‘fancy-shmancy effects. Less is best.

Comment. For me, The Dybbuk is the best love story of all time. Period. Romeo and Juliet? Petulant teenaged pishers. How long did Romeo and Juliet take from the time they met, were smitten, married (a few days later); he had a swordfight and killed her cousin and was banished; then she has to marry Paris and takes a sleeping potion and makes people think she’s dead and then she’s buried and Romeo comes back and dies when he sees her supposedly dead—a week, a week and a half tops? Pishers! Feh.

On the other hand, in The Dybbuk Channon is a respectful man of his time. He follows convention and does not push himself on Leah, who he obviously loves. But for seven years he does penance in order to show God he is worthy of her and finally to win her. When that’s not enough and she is promised to someone else he dies of grief at the loss of her and perhaps his faith. Then his restless soul possesses her. A restless soul in the body of a live person, in this case, Leah, is a Dybbuk. Every effort of the senior Rabbi goes into exorcising the Dybbuk from Leah. What they don’t count on is that Leah’s soul doesn’t want him to leave. It’s this entwining of souls, transcending life and the real world and embracing the mystical world that makes this the best love story of all time for me.

Soulpepper Theatre Company presents:

Run: May 14, 2015 to June 27, 2015.
Cast: 22: 13 men, 9 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

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