Spirit of the theater

The acclaimed Gesher troupe tackles ‘The Dybbuk,’ the most celebrated play in the history of both Yiddish and Hebrew theater.

Efrat Ben-Tzur is possessed in a Gesher rehearsal of ‘The Dybbuk’  (photo credit: COURTESY GESHER THEATER / DANIEL KAMINSKY)
Efrat Ben-Tzur is possessed in a Gesher rehearsal of ‘The Dybbuk’
Just 14 days remain before the premier of “The Dybbuk”, and Gesher Theater’s artistic director, Yevgeny Arye, is a man possessed. It’s the second day of rehearsals on the big stage, the cast having moved there from a nearby hangar, and Israel “Sasha” Damidov, the lead actor, still needs a prompter for some of his lines. To make matters worse, the sound technicians are missing their cues, the music is too loud and is drowning out lines of text, and a curtain doesn’t go up fast enough – and this is only the first scene.
Arye chain-smokes, curses in Russian (something about one’s mother) and shouts a rapid-fire “Stop!Stop!” into a microphone when things go wrong, which is just about every other minute. He slams down the box of cigarettes on the table and frantically runs to the stage to demonstrate how he wants things done. He speaks in Russian and someone translates his words into Hebrew for the benefit of the Israeli-born actors. For Arye, schooled in the lofty and highly disciplined traditions of Russian theater, every moment on stage is significant. The award-winning director can sometimes spend hours on a single gesture or a line of text. Rehearsals, emotionally charged affairs in high decibels, can last all night.
Arye has already directed more than 60 productions at Gesher, but at stake now is the most celebrated play in the history of both Yiddish and Hebrew theater. Gesher’s “The Dybbuk” has not yet opened, but already the theater has received invitations from abroad. The production exudes historic import. There is a camera crew filming Arye’s every word for a documentary.
“The Dybbuk,” the tale of Lea, a young woman possessed on the eve of her wedding by the soul of her dead beloved, was written by S. Ansky in 1914, shortly before the Russian Revolution. It is to Jewish theater what King Lear is to the British or Chekhov to the Russians.
And it is not lost on Yevgeny Arye that the first Hebrew production in 1922 by Habima in Moscow was directed by another Yevgeny – Yevgeny Vakhtangov, a student of the great Stanislavski and a legend in the annals of Russian theater.
From Yevgeny to Yevgeny, there have been more than 50 adaptations of “The Dybbuk” in the past 92 years, including film, opera, ballet (the Bolshoi) and even Puppet Theater.
“There is such a myth surrounding this play that it’s a huge responsibility,” says Arye in an interview with The Jerusalem Report. A few minutes earlier, he was still shouting “Stop! Stop!” But now, with the rehearsal over, his energy is sapped and he is so tired he can barely speak. “On the other hand, I have to forget that this is such a special play,” he says. “I have to be free of the myth because you can’t do anything in art if you shoulder this kind of responsibility.”
Arye, considered by many an artistic genius, has won every Israeli Theater Academy prize possible, and the establishment has honored him with doctorates from Hebrew University, Bar-Ilan University and the Weizmann Institute. Bespectacled, bearded, with shoulder-length hair gone grey, Arye is dressed in jeans, a long-sleeved black T-shirt and a woolen scarf around his neck to keep him from catching a cold in the unheated theater.
Arye is not playing it safe. Instead of going with the classic Ansky text, he is taking a chance on a totally new play, inspired by Ansky, written by Roee Chen, Gesher’s dramaturge.
“IT’S A big risk to touch something so iconic,” says Chen, who wrote the play during a three-month period that included intensive research into “The Dybbuk’s” history, talks with Kabbalists in Jerusalem, and meetings with a psychologist for a modern take on Lea’s dybbuk.
(The psychologist diagnosed Lea as suffering from dissociative personality disorder.) The storyline in both plays is the same, but the dialogues are all new, except for some famous lines retained from the original play. In Ansky’s play, Hanan, the dybbuk, appears only in the opening and closing scenes. In Chen’s version, Hanan is present on stage throughout the play, and Lea has new, long monologues that reveal her inner world. In the new version, the protagonists are older and Lea is feeling society’s pressure to get married.
“The second name of this play is ‘Between Two Worlds,’ which is very important for us,” says Arye. “What we are doing is breaking the barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead.”
The play is still set in the same period, presumably the late 19th century, in an eastern European shtetl. “Writers are all in a great dialogue that goes through time,” says Chen.
“This is our way to speak with each other. How else could I speak with Ansky, who has been dead for 94 years?” Ansky wrote “The Dybbuk, Between Two Worlds” in1914 in Russian. He had spent years conducting ethnographic research of Jewish folklore, songs and stories in the shtetls of Russia and Ukraine. Ansky did not live to see the premier of the play that would propel him to world fame. During six years of war and revolution Ansky tried unsuccessfully to have the play staged, but only his sudden death at age 57 prompted the director of the Polish Vilner Troupe to stage the play at the end of the traditional 30-day mourning period.
The play opened on December 9, 1920, at the Elyseum Theatre in Warsaw. Two years later, Habima staged “The Dybbuk” in Moscow, in its Hebrew version translated by Chaim Nachman Bialik, and the rest is history.
The troupe later immigrated to Palestine and founded what became Israel’s national theater.
“The Dybbuk” became its signature play and ran for some 40 years.
“We’re talking about the very cornerstone of Israeli theater,” says Chen. “On the one hand, “The Dybbuk” is an authentic folklore-like fairytale; and, on the other hand, there is a psychological core. You have two stories. One is a love story between Hanan, a naïve Kabbalist who came from the other world after his death to reunite with his beloved Lea; on the other hand, you have a story of a woman who lives in a society that cannot hear her voice until she begins to speak like a man.”
As part of his research, Chen went to Jerusalem to speak with friends who study Kabbala.
“They told me things that blew my mind, that today in Israel we still have exorcisms,” he says.
In Jewish tradition, a dybbuk is a disembodied human spirit that, due to sins committed by him or against him, wanders restlessly until finding a haven in the body of a living person.
Whereas in other traditions, Christianity for example, the spirit is usually evil or even Satanic, in Jewish tradition, the dybbuk is a simple Jewish soul usually known to the people to whom it appears.
THE PART of Hanan, a yeshiva student who delves into Kabbala, is close to Israel Damidov’s heart. For the past 22 years Gesher’s leading man has been studying Kabbala with Rabbi Michael Laitman, founder of the Bnei Baruch Kabbalah Education and Research Institute. Three to four nights a week after a night’s performance, Damidov removes his stage make-up, changes his clothing and heads out to Bnei Brak to study. This is something his character, Hanan, would appreciate.
Damidov and Efrat Ben-Tzur, who plays the role of Lea, embody the changes that Gesher has undergone since the troupe of all Soviet-born actors first made aliya in 1991.
Damidov was working in Moscow’s renowned Mayakovsky Theatre under Arye’s direction when he heard the director was planning to immigrate to Israel with the unlikely dream of founding a new theater. Damidov asked to join.
Gesher Theater’s debut in Israel just months after the Gulf War in 1991 couldn’t have been less promising. Ensconced in a borrowed basement at Habima Theater, the new immigrants performed an English play, about Danes, in Russian, before a Hebrew-speaking audience.
The odds were stacked heavily against them.
But the standing ovation at the premier of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” proved that nothing was lost in translation. Still, no one expected the new Russian-language theater to survive past its first few productions. Realizing a year after their arrival that the fledgling theater could not survive if they continue to perform only in Russian, Gesher’s actors began performing in Hebrew, without understanding a word they were saying.
Considered one of Israel’s best theaters, and hailed by the London Times as “one of the six best theatre companies in the world,” Gesher continues to surprise Israeli theater lovers.
Gesher’s repertoire ranges from Chekhov, Euripides and Shakespeare to dramas by highly respected Israeli writers such as Joshua Sobol, Yoram Kaniuk and David Grossman. The theater has appeared to rave reviews in major festivals and prestigious venues around the world, including Lincoln Center in New York, The Kennedy Center in Washington and the Barbican in London.
Since its arrival on the scene some 22 years ago, much water has flowed under the proverbial bridge, which is what the word gesher means in Hebrew. Some of the older actors have retired or died, and some of the children born in the interim have joined the family business. Henry David, who has a part in “The Dybbuk,” is the son of two famous Moscow stage actors who were among the founders of Gesher. In this production, his mother, Lillian Ruth, plays the ghost of Lea’s aunt, Bella. In addition, young Israeli actors have joined the troupe and about half the company today is Israeli-born.
Ben-Tzur, a quintessential Sabra, was born and raised on a kibbutz, served in the army and joined Gesher in 1995. She faces a challenge in creating the role of Lea, stepping into the legendary role of Hanna Rovina, who played Lea at Habima. She also has to play the part of the dybbuk that possesses her; and at this point, just before the premier, she is still not sure how to do it.
“I feel that I need to understand what the dybbuk is in our play and how we give him expression. We’re a week and a half before the play, and I feel that we are still in a process that has not come to its end,” she says in a telephone interview. “It’s clear that the dybbuk comes from folklore. And in various eras in the past, they thought that when a person acted abnormally, a dybbuk had possessed him. This is before Freud and psychology.
“But today we know there are no demons or dybbuks. There are psychological problems and we must decide what Lea’s story is. In our play, Lea is not a 17-year-old who has fallen in love. This is a woman whom they had tried to marry off a few times, an older woman who has buried all her desires almost to the point of desiccation. On the eve of the wedding, she is overwhelmed by all the feelings that she has buried. Her disease is basically her passion.”
Like in good Russian novels, passions abound in Gesher – passion for theater, passion for excellence. By the time the houselights dim and The Dybbuk makes its appearance on January 13, Damidov will know his lines, the lighting technicians won’t miss a cue, and the curtain will go up in time.