Traveling Jewish Theatre’s Impressive ‘Dybbuk’ Presents a Bit of a Problem

By Betsy Hunton Special to the Planet
Friday May 28, 2004

The Traveling Jewish Theatre has come to Berkeley’s Julia Morgan Theater, bringing along with it Dybbuk—which is one chunk of a play—and two gifted actors. In the course of the evening Karine Koret and Keith Davis successfully play roles that run from a nice young couple happily celebrating the Sabbath together, to ones embodying possession by supernatural and terrifying spirits. In between they each portray a dazzling variety of ages and characters as well as an enormous emotional range. It is a very impressive pair of performances. 

Corey Fischer, director and co-founder of the Traveling Jewish Theatre, credits Bruce Myers as one of the people who inspired him to develop the idea of reimagining the Jewish storytelling tradition. Myers “reinvented” Dybbuk for modern audiences from the 1920 original play by S. Ansky. In both versions, the play has had international success starting from its premiere in Vilna, Lithuania. The present adaptation has been performed in England, France, South America and India and has been the basis for several operas, ballets and modern dances. 

The dybbuk is a concept coming from the Kabbalah, which my dictionary defines as “an occult religious philosophy (some centuries old) developed by certain Jewish rabbis, based on a mystical interpretation of the scriptures.” In this play, the dybbuk is an agonizing—seemingly evil—spirit which possesses the young woman after her lover’s death and “must be exorcised by religious or magical ceremonies.” 

What is confusing for someone unfamiliar with this centuries-old lore, is that the spirit which is so overwhelmingly painful for the young woman appears to be that of her dead lover. (You’d expect better of him). Whatever the religious significance of this portrayal, the exorcism is a terrific scene which most actresses would kill to play. Karine Koret makes the most of it, yet without any sense of over-dramatizing. There’s no artificiality in her performance—any of her performances.  

Keith Davis has as wide a variety of parts as does Koret, running from the adoring lover of a woman betrothed to another man, to the woman’s father, to the spiritually exhausted rabbi who must summon the vitality to assist in the exorcism; he does equally well by all the roles. What is key to the story is his character’s intense religiosity, again a Kabbalah-based situation. 

And that appears to be a major issue for the audience. Although it is certainly possible for someone with little or no knowledge of Kabbalah or, for that matter, even Conservative Judaism, to enjoy the play, such ignorance does generate a number of significant unanswered questions. For example, are the two main characters happily united in death at the end? They’re happy all right, and united, but are they alive or dead? And the delightful beginning of the play—which is a Shabbat Dinner between the two would-be lovers—is this the happy ending they reach if or when they die? Is this a picture from the future and are they supposed to be married? Or is it just a portrayal of the grace that exists between them?  

All in all, this production presents something of a problem. The performances are excellent, the staging is first-rate (the lighting design is particularly effective) but, unlike many of the Traveling Jewish Theatre’s productions, to fully comprehend it requires a degree of knowledge about Judaism that may be missing among the general population.›