Klezmer, Exorcism and Love

by Pat Launer October 24, 2016


theater-dybbuk_headshots“It’s my favorite play,” says Todd Salovey of S. Ansky’s 1914 masterwork, “The Dybbuk.”

“It captures everything I love about theater. I think it’s unabashedly spiritual, and the logic of the play is spiritual logic. It’s the idea that a promise made between two friends that’s broken can have a devastating effect on their children’s lives. It’s about a wrong that has to be righted.”

“The Dybbuk” was also the first play Todd ever directed at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, where he’s now the  associate artistic

director and artistic director of the Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival. Based on the story of Ansky’s timeless tale, Todd has written his own play, which he’ll direct starting this month, called “The Dybbuk for Hannah and Sam’s Wedding” (San Diego Rep, 11/23-12/18).

Ansky: activist and ethnographer

S. Ansky is the pseudonym of Solomon Zanvel Rappoport (1863-1920), a Russian Jewish author, playwright, ethnographer and political/social activist. In 1911, Ansky organized a large-scale ethnographic expedition to gather Jewish folklore, songs, melodies, manuscripts and books. His fieldwork was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I, but he took that time to write about the destruction of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe.

Also during this period, in 1914, he wrote his most famous work, the classic Yiddish drama, “Der Dibek,” “The Dybbuk,” which drew on Jewish mystical folklore. He didn’t live to see it staged. The first production, in Warsaw, took place two months after the writer’s death; it was published the next year.

“The Dybbuk” has been translated into many languages, and is still being produced around the world, having been adapted many times, as plays, operas, ballets and symphonic suites. And now, a new work by Todd Salovey.

The original play was an expressionistic drama in four acts. Originally titled “Tsvishn Tsvey Veltn” (“Between Two Worlds”), which became the subtitle when it was published, the drama was based on the mystical concept, from Hasidic folklore, of a disembodied human spirit that, because of former sins, wanders restlessly until it finds a haven in the body of a living person.

The plot centers on a young woman, Leah, who on the day of her wedding is possessed by a dybbuk. This proves to be the spirit of Khannon, a young hasidic scholar, her first love, who died upon learning of her betrothal to another man. Their fathers had promised them to each other when they were children. But then, Leah’s father decided she should be married to a wealthier man. The dybbuk, which can only be expelled by exorcism, at first refuses to leave Leah’s body. Eventually, during an exorcism, he’s persuaded to go. In the end, Leah dies, and her soul and Khannon’s rise and are united forever.

“It’s a beautifully romantic story,” says Todd, “about a pure and passionate love between two young people who are only able to come together after life.

“It’s also about social justice. A promise is broken because a father wants his daughter to marry someone from the right social class. It’s woven from folktales, from mystical stories, from a supernatural story about possession. It’s one of the most influential stories. Every story of possession since it was written pays a debt to ‘The Dybbuk.’”

When he directed a large, full-scale production of the play in 1993 (after having served as the Rep’s casting director and literary manager for three years), Todd “tried to capture the beauty and the spirit. You walked into the theater and immediately felt that you were in a different world.”

He thoroughly succeeded. It was a stunning production, in every sense of the word.

“Since grad school [at UC San Diego], it had always been my dream play,” says Todd. “And my first production of it gave birth to the Rep’s relationship with the San Diego Jewish community. The very next year, the Jewish Arts Festival was started.

“It’s the root of my work as an artist.” He doesn’t direct often, but asserts that “every play I direct is a play I love, something that touches me inside. I direct because I become possessed with a story. It’s a communion of story, my gut response, and sharing that response with a roomful of people.”

There was another impetus for his newest work.

“Back in the 1980s when my brother, and then a cousin, got married, a family member popped out of the crowd, got onstage and started to do a long, rambling toast, somehow trying to make the event his own.”

In Todd’s adaptation, which he describes as “a romance, a comedy, a drama and a Hasidic story,” the setting is a wedding, and the audience serves as guests.

“And I thought, ‘What if that Jewish uncle is really impressed that these young Millennials bucked the trend of their time and want to make a long-term commitment?’ He wants to tell the story of what happens when a promise is broken, and he gets possessed by that idea.”

One more element drove this adaptation: Todd wanted to create a solo piece for the mega-talented chameleon Ron Campbell, who has “an amazing ability to create and transform himself into various characters, with just a look, a gesture, an attitude, to tell a complicated, multi-character story.”

Ron, a master comic, actor and clown (he spent more than six years traveling the world with Cirque du Soleil’s “Kooza” show), had done this unique multi-character balancing act in his one-man performances of “A Tale of Two Cities” (at the SD Rep, 1991) and “The 1000th Night” (at North Coast Rep, 1999), a Holocaust-era riff on “The Arabian Nights.”

There was yet one more impulse and inspiration for Todd in creating this piece. He had worked closely with Yale Strom in the past. The gifted violinist, composer, filmmaker and writer “captures the Jewish yearning and history in his violin,” according to Todd. “He’s an ethnologist, just like Ansky.”

Since 1981, Yale has conducted extensive field research in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans, exploring the music and culture of the Jewish and Roma communities. He’s now one of the world’s leading scholar-ethnographer-artists of klezmer music and history.

“Yale had the chutzpah and moxie and drive to go into these communities, and then to start a band that played Eastern European music,” says Todd. “I’m so glad that he’s not only composing for this new work, but he’ll also be playing in it. And I’m thrilled that many people will discover Yale for the first time through this piece.”

A consummate storyteller, and a story within a story

In his play, Todd explains, the evening “starts out as a toast from Uncle Jerry to the bride

and groom, Hannah and Sam.

He gets up while one of those wedding videos is playing, with some soppy background music like ‘You Are the Wind Beneath My Wings.’ Jerry interrupts it and calls the band up.

‘Would it kill you to play something Jewish?,’ he asks. And they launch into Hava Nagila. ‘That’s not Jewish,’ says Jerry, ‘it’s cliché.’ So they play ‘L’Chaim’ from ‘Fiddler,’ and then ‘The Way We Were.’ Finally, they play something from the depths of the Jewish soul.’

“The conceit is that Jerry doesn’t know he’s going to tell this story,” says Todd. “He gets swept away by the spirit of the moment, and he begins to tell the story of ‘The Dybbuk.’ He also has something he’s looking for in the telling of it. He’s also haunted.”

As Northern California-based performer Ron Campbell (né Rosen; his father was Jewish) sees it, “everyone’s got that crazy uncle. Maybe he doesn’t have kids, or he’s just quirky. When we first started working on developing the play, it started out that Jerry was just telling the story to the newlyweds to illustrate the importance of keeping to your vows. Then we find that Jerry has a dybbuk of his own – or maybe he was a dybbuk. It’s a real mind-bender!

“This is as close to an immersive theater experience as you can get,” says Ron. “The audience is thrust into the role of wedding guests, the band is still there, people are tipsy, Jerry gets a bit drunk, and he realizes, in a clever way, that he has to tell this story – not only for them, but for himself. The original story was about redemption, and that’s what he’s seeking.”

To Ron, “there is no bad guy, no mustache-twirling here. Khannon has been promised to Leah; he has every right to be there. The exorcism rebbe is not as strong as he used to be. Leah’s father broke the oath, but he only wanted what he thought was best for his daughter.

“The 70-year-old rebbe calls upon a dead man as a witness in the trial he stages. The rebbe is translating from the ‘real world.’ As the saying goes, ‘The dead are living in the real world. Our world is an illusion.’ I’ve found that non-Jews are really touched by that.

“There’s a series of smaller broken vows, in addition to the big one,” Ron continues. “All the big explosions happen right onstage – and the exorcism. There’s a metaphorical exorcism and a real one. It’s very exciting.

“At the center of all this, there’s Jerry – a modern guy, my age. He’s me, basically. He escapes into the story but has to pop back into his own life and face his own demons.”

To make all this happen, Ron has to switch back and forth among 18 characters.

“It’s a rubbing-your-stomach and scratching-your-head kind of thing,” he chuckles. “But we wanted it to be true to ‘The Dybbuk.’ We didn’t want it to be some kind of showoff thing, where I play a bunch of characters. I’ve done that. I want this to be something more meaningful.

“Jerry has some strong issues about his deceased brother that I relate to,” Ron admits. “I have two brothers – one close, one estranged. I see both sides – what it’s like to have, and not to have, a brother. I’m just there in front of all my relatives, telling my truth. It has a confessional quality. I have to make it colloquial in a way that fits my mouth. Todd is so good at keeping the truth of the source.

“We have a really nice working relationship,” Ron says of his collaborations with Todd. What I prize in a director is courage. It took guts to take on ‘The Dybbuk.’ He’s very trustable, and he trusts me.”

One thing Ron has learned from his experiences with multi-character shows is that, when the director gives him notes on all the characters at once, he gets “overwhelmed. So we’ve learned to give notes to each of the characters. It’s a schizophrenic process, but it works.”

According to Ron, playing many characters “is really a fugue. I’m inside it. I know just how many words or syllables a character can say before I can switch to another character.”

But outside of technique, there’s this story.

“It gets to me every time,” says Ron. “It’s not something I have to act or summon. There’s something about this piece. It’s stories within stories. Ancient and modern. And timeless.”

“The Dybbuk for Hannah and Sam’s Wedding” runs at the San Diego Repertory Theatre from Nov. 23-Dec. 18. Tickets and information: (619) 544-1000; sdrep.org.


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