Theater Review: THE DYBBUK: BETWEEN TWO WORLDS (Arlekin Players Theatre in Boston)

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by Lynne Weiss on June 9, 2024

in Theater-Boston


It’s not often I would feel compelled to begin a review with mention of the creative team, but director Igor Golyak  — co-adapting with Dr. Rachel Merrill Moss and co-designing sets with Sasha Kuznetsova — in tandem with composition and sound by Fedor Zhuravlev, costume and props by Sasha Ageeva and lights by Jeff Adelberg, has created something truly remarkable with Arlekin Players Theatre‘s beautiful production of The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds in Boston’s historic Vilna Shul.

Andrey Burkovskiy and Yana Gladkikh
Andrey Burkovskiy and Yana Gladkikh

The benches within this fairly small synagogue are arranged in long rows along the sides of the sanctuary. The center of the room (which includes the bimah, or raised platform from which the Torah is read during services) is filled with two sets of metal scaffolding — one arranged in front of and perpendicular to the bimah and the other parallel to the ark behind the bimah. The larger scaffold in front of the bimah is beneath a vaulted skylight and has three levels; the smaller scaffold between the bimah and the ark has two levels. The floor space between the audience and the performance space is minimal, barely wide enough to allow the performers to pass in front of us. We, the audience, are in effect on the stage, separated from the actors primarily by the vertical spaces created by the metal structures and the ladders that connect them to the floor.

Andrey Burkovskiy and Yana Gladkikh
Yana Gladkikhas as Leah

Aptly for the theme of this play — written by Roy Chen, based on the original by S. Ansky with additional material from the translation by Joachim Neugroschel — we are not sure where we are when it all begins. The dangling bare bulbs are dim; eerie sounds, including the sound of dripping water and disembodied laughter, fill the room and we don’t know who is laughing — or why — or the source of the water. Both sets of scaffolding are draped with what appear to be translucent painters’ drop cloths. In the course of the action, these translucent sheets become many different things, including a wedding gown and the purifying waters of a mikvah, a bath used in Judaism for ritual immersion to achieve spiritual purity.

Yana Gladkhik and Andrey Burkovskiy as Khonen
Dead Souls

A man appears, dressed in a laborer’s clothes, a soiled white shirt and dark trousers spattered with paint or plaster, and challenges God from the highest level of the scaffolding: “I strive and study, direct all my thoughts toward you. I stand strong against earthly desires. You created man, you created woman. Won’t you join them together to bless the world with stars?” This is Khonen (Andrey Burkovskiy), something of an outcast because of his fascination with mysticism; the woman to whom he wishes to be joined is his childhood friend Leah (Yana Gladkikh), but Leah’s father Sender (Robert Walsh) plans to marry her to Menashe (Fedor Zhuravlev).

The Wedding -- Yana Gladkikh and Fedor Zhuravlev
Yana Gladkikh and Robert Walsh as Sender

Deb Martin is the crone-like Frade, Leah’s grandmother, who is eager to see her married and who tries to instruct her in her wifely role. When Khonen is suddenly struck dead, his longing for Leah traps him between the worlds of the dead and the living and turns him into a dybbuk who takes possession of Leah. Rabbi Azriel, played by Gene Ravvin, is called in to exorcise the dybbuk. An ensemble of eight white-clad actors provide a chorus of judgment and commentary.

Exorcism -- Deb Martin as Frade
Gene Ravvin as Rabbi Azriel

The Vilna Shul was one of many gathering places for the Jews who arrived in Boston in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the city’s only surviving immigrant-era synagogue. The building was completed in 1920, and that was the same year that Yiddish ethnographer and activist S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds premiered in Warsaw. According to dramaturg and co-adaptor Dr. Rachel Merrill Moss (co-editor of The Dybbuk Century: The Jewish Play that Possessed the World), the play caused such a sensation that the entire city was said to be possessed. Yana Gladkhik and Andrey Burkovskiy bring both the flavor of Yiddish mythology and the exaggerated performance styles of the early 1920s to this production — romanticized, borderline camp enhanced by the 1920s-style pale faces and kohl-darkened eyes — and yet totally appropriate to this tale of longing so powerful it disrupts the natural cycles of life and death. The dybbuk is a dangerous creature not only because of its power to possess a woman, but because of its willingness to challenge patriarchal power and the laws and plans of God.

Boris Furman as Rabbi
Anna Furman as Hannah, Leah's Mother

In keeping with the destabilizing presence of the dybbuk, Burkovskiy and Gladkikh traverse the vertical spaces created by the scaffolding with frightening alacrity, making the metallic surfaces rattle and shake as they run and leap from one surface to another. At times one or the other seems to disappear, only to reemerge, somehow transported to another platform. In a climactic scene, the two of them dance ecstatically to German Eurodance group La Bouche’s “Be My Lover.” Leah appears to be in danger of falling off the elevated platform on more than one occasion, only to be saved by Khonen who pulls her away from the edge in the nick of time.

Yana Gladkhik and Andrey Burkovskiy
The Set of The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds

Arlekin Players Theatre was founded by Ukrainian-born Jewish artistic director Golyak in 2009. Drawing on the traditions of Russian theater (both Burkovskiy and Gladkikh are originally from Russia) and based in Needham, Massachusetts, Arlekin tours internationally and performs works “that explore identity, culture, antisemitism, home, belonging, tradition, and finding common humanity and themes that unite us.” (Golyak’s production of Our Class recently played at BAM in Brooklyn.) The Vilna Shul itself is a historic and cultural treasure that has refused to die. Quite the opposite of a malicious spirit, it is in the midst of extensive renovations that will restore its murals and its place as a center for the preservation of Jewish history, identity, and culture in the heart of Boston.

photos by Irina Danilova

The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds
Arlekin Players Theatre
produced by Sara Stackhouse
The Vilna Shul, Boston’s Center for Jewish Culture, 18 Phillips St. in Boston
ends on June 23, 2024 EXTENDED to June 30, 2024
for tickets ($29-$72), visit Arlekin Players

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